European policy makers have recently made milestone decisions about the control of vehicle emissions. Industry influence appears to be weakening protections that would benefit citizens.
Euro 7 is a regulation that will update the maximum emissions for new vehicles sold in Europe. Brought in by the European Union to address air pollution and its impact on human health, Euro 7 is experiencing a bumpy ride through the legislative process, with lobbying from interest groups apparently prompting compromises to the original aims of the legislation.
The road to regulation
In September, the Council of the European Union adopted a general approach to Euro 7 that included a number of amendments to the original text of the European Commission. These included a reversion to previous exhaust emission limits and testing conditions for cars and vans rather than the proposed stricter rules envisaged in Euro 7. It also included a delay on implementation.
This so-called “compromise” text caused strong reactions among stakeholders. Environmental associations underlined that the EU Council’s rejection of stricter vehicle pollutant standards turned it into a “disaster” for European air quality and the health of European citizens. Automotive suppliers and dealers argued that the revisions would constitute a “regression” and a disincentive to innovation in the EU. In contrast, automakers welcomed the agreement reached by national ministers as an “improvement” on the original proposal, which was deemed disproportionate for imposing high costs on industry and customers with limited environmental benefits.
Following this, in October, the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), responsible for the Euro 7 file, approved its own compromise text. Again, external reactions arrived right away. European cities and regions, in particular, were “deeply concerned” over the vote as it was seen to weaken the Commission’s proposal on emissions’ limits. The compromise text fell well short of their expectations regarding the need to grapple with road traffic pollution in EU cities, and its detrimental effects on the health of their residents.
Most recently, last week the European Parliament voted for a Euro 7 text in line with ENVI’s proposal. This position was described by the press as being “poised to water down new car pollution rules after industry lobbying” and set the foundation for forthcoming negotiations on the final form of the law.
It is not easy to understand, in such a varied scenario, what optimal legislative outcome the EU institutions should be chasing. While there is considerable public pressure for stricter standards, arguments about EU competitiveness and employment are often invoked to justify minimising any additional burdens on the automotive industry. We suggest that a look to the past may help explain the ranking of the interests at stake in the Euro 7 negotiations.
We’ve been here before
The emergence of the Volkswagen scandal in 2015 brought to the forefront the inadequacy of existing EU emissions regulations to effectively curb the detrimental impact that emissions from cars have on human health.
The scandal uncovered that cheating on emissions tests was a common practice among European automakers. So much so that the European Parliament set up a Committee of Inquiry for “Emission Measurements in the Automotive Sector” to assess whether European emissions measurement systems were able to control contraventions or maladministration of the EU Law.
The Committee report found that there were large discrepancies between the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions of most diesel cars measured with the laboratory test and their NOx emissions measured in real driving conditions. In reality, these emissions did not meet the standards. The report concluded that the failure to introduce proper regulatory tests was at least partly due to political priorities and the lobbying influence of the automotive industry that directed the Commission and the Member States to avoid additional burdens on industry.
Studies following the outbreak of the Volkswagen scandal estimated huge health impacts from diesel cars that didn’t meet emissions standards in regular use. Scientists agreed, for example, that damages from increased NOx emissions in the U.S. greatly exceeded possible benefits from increased fuel economy. In Europe, the 2.6 million defective vehicles sold in Germany alone between 2008 and 2015 were estimated to have released into the atmosphere 240 kilotonnes of NOx excess emissions. This was calculated to have led to 1,200 premature deaths per year, each equating to as much as a decade of life lost. In total, this was thought to correspond to 13,000 life-years lost and €1.9 billion in associated costs.
Regulatory consequences of the Volkswagen scandal
As a consequence, the European Parliament accelerated European policy-making around emissions measurement and standards. Two legislative initiatives, in particular, resulted. The first was the introduction of real driving emission (RDE) testing with portable emission measurement systems into the EU type-approval procedure as of 2017. The second was the phase-out of the sale of new combustion engine cars and vans by 2035 that was introduced in late 2022.
Despite the high ambition of both initiatives, they were again hit by the problem they were responsible for overseeing: namely, by the interests of the auto industry they were trying to protect EU citizens from. So, the RDE regulation saw the introduction of the notion of a “conformity factor” alongside the new measurement systems, which, in practice, weakened the emission standards in force. Also the phase-out was agreed upon only after the addition of a 2026 review clause brought forward under pressure from big car-making countries. France has called for plug-in hybrids to be considered beyond 2035, while Germany has backed allowing combustion engines that run on e-fuels — the term for synthetic fuels manufactured with captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
All in all, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the European legislative processes around vehicle emissions have historically been heavily influenced by the automotive industry’s interests.
Euro 7 goal still alive
As of now, it seems that the positions of the European Commission, the EU Council, and the European Parliament diverge on Euro 7. The European Commission has apparently learnt from the past and proposed stricter emissions standards and testing procedures for new internal combustion engine vehicles. The majority of member States – through the EU Council – have instead rejected innovations on both topics. The Parliament speaks of its compromise as serving the interests of all parties involved and steering clear of extreme positions.
Has the Dieselgate case not carried any lessons? Will EU institutions accommodate the automotive industry’s requests, such as in the case of the real driving emissions testing and the phase-out? What interests are EU institutions safeguarding by adhering to emissions standards that undeniably result in severe illnesses and fatalities among EU citizens, while hindering the attainment of cleaner air objectives?
The goal of any legislative process is to achieve a successful outcome through political consensus. However, it is pertinent to ask, especially in scenarios like the impending compromises on Euro 7, whether procedural success in reaching a final legislative act aligns with the substantive rights of citizens who are going to be directly impacted. This raises the question of how the current structures and processes of EU legislative procedures risk being employed to prioritize the interests of economic entities over those of civil society and the rights of European citizens.