David Martin MEP

Labour Member of the European Parliament and one of the six MEPs representing Scotland in Brussels and Strasbourg

Emitting Defeat

The Highland News, February 2016

Highland News readers may remember that last year the German car manufacturer Volkswagon admitted installing software in its engines to mask nitrogen oxide emissions and allow diesel engines to appear much cleaner than they really were. Not only dangerous and unfair for consumers this also presented a huge problem for policy makers who had been relying on facts given by the car industry.

Air pollution in some of our UK cities is amongst the worst in the EU with 38 zones currently exceeding limits for nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Much of the air pollution in our cities comes from diesel cars, which now make up over 50% of all new cars sold in the UK and 36% of the total fleet.

Currently emission tests for cars in the EU are conducted only in laboratory tests, where cars can easily cheat the system. It has been shown that on the road, some cars are spewing out up to 14 times above the current legal limit for nitrogen dioxide.

For months, Labour MEPs have been calling for all car emissions tests to be independent of car manufacturers, for no watering down of targets and for the introduction of a new Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure so that cars comply with emission limits set by the EU almost ten years ago. In January, after earlier promises to ‘get tough’ with car makers, the European Commission came forward with a proposal. Not satisfied that 90% of cars already break current legal standards, the proposal was to allow carmakers to emit double the current legally allowed amount of nitrogen oxides (NOx) between 2017 and 2020, and 50% extra after 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee rejected the new rules, saying they were too lax and encouraged the Parliament to throw out the plans and force the Commission back to the drawing board. Five of the Parliament’s political groups drafted a formal objection and this came before the European Parliament this month (February).

It is hard to believe that EU Member States, including the UK government, failed to support this objection, effectively giving makers greater leeway to break current rules on harmful emissions.

My Labour Party colleagues and I were extremely disappointed with the vote. Parliament, by the very close margin of 323 against and 317 for (with 61 abstentions) failed to support the objection. The interests of the car industry came before those of consumers and the health of the British people.

On order to protect consumers and people’s health, car manufacturers and national governments have a duty to properly implement EU legislation. The Commission believes the new rules will still bring improvement especially if tests are ‘on the road’ rather than in laboratories. However, they are not enough. With tens of thousands of people dying prematurely each year in the UK because of dirty air a push for the original stringent emission standards to be included in the new RDE test procedure must go on.

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