The European Parliament has approved a compromise deal on car emissions despite health impact evidence

Health impact of EU car emissions laid bare by post-VWgate study

More than 44,000 healthy life years will be lost in Europe due to Volkswagen vehicles emitting more nitrogen oxide than officially claimed, a study has found.

The study, which was the first to focus specifically on consequences in Europe, was published on the same day when the European Parliament passed a compromise deal which, despite reducing nitrogen emissions, would allow the valid limits to be exceeded by 50 per cent.

The study, conducted by researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands, concluded that health effects of Volkswagen’s cheating for the European population will be much worse than in the USA as the majority of the affected vehicles had been sold on the continent, as well as due to the continent’s higher population density. According to the report, 95 per cent of the health impacts will occur in Europe, mostly due to inhalation of fine dust particles.

The 11 million diesel cars sold around the world between 2009 and 2015 have jointly emitted 526 kilo-tonnes of nitrogen oxides more than is officially permitted.

If the affected vehicles were to remain on EU roads without any technical adjustments, a further 72,000 healthy life years will be lost in Europe. That includes years lost due to premature deaths as well as years of poor health caused by air pollution.

Volkswagen’s practices, exposed by the US Environment Protection Agency in September 2015, prompted calls for laboratory emission testing to be replaced by real-driving tests. It has long been known that emission levels measured in laboratory tests are considerably lower than those actually produced in real driving conditions. Volkswagen’s defeat devices, designed to detect when a vehicle is being tested and turn on emission scrubbing technologies, have exploited this gap.

While US regulators have taken a strict stance, prohibiting Volkswagen from selling its vehicles until full compliance with the legislation is achieved, Europe has opted for a milder approach.

In October, member states agreed on the compromise deal, which permits diesel cars to exceed the 80 milligrams/kilometre nitrogen oxide limit by 50 per cent. Today, the deal narrowly passed through the European Parliament.

Those in favour of the new agreement claim that insisting on full compliance would harm the car industry and could possibly kill diesel technology completely. However, the mayors of several European cities including Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid, Milan and Naples expressed their disagreement with the deal.

"If such a decision would be confirmed, we fear that our commitment to reduce air pollution in cities will become meaningless," the mayors said in a letter to members of the European parliament.

The European Commission welcomed Wednesday's vote as a step in the right direction and urged manufacturers to start designing vehicles "for full compliance with the legal emissions limit" when measured in real driving conditions. 

On Tuesday, Volkswagen finally submitted a plan to fix 80,000 3.0-litre diesel vehicles sold in the USA, which have been found to emit up to nine times the legally permitted amount of nitrogen oxide.

The California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency will now review the plan before deciding whether Volkswagen can start selling its diesel cars in the US again. The affected vehicles include Volkswagen Group’s brands Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen.

Cars with 3.0-litre diesel engines form only a fraction of the affected vehicles. Vehicles with smaller 2.0-litre engines have been found to emit 40 times the legal amount of nitrogen oxides. A plan to fix the 482,000 2.0 litre cars was rejected by California last month, which called the proposal ‘substantially deficient.’

California had set a Tuesday deadline under state law for VW to submit a plan to recall and fix the vehicles with diesel engines that were designed by its Audi unit. Federal regulators must separately approve any recall fix plan.

A VW lawyer said last month the automaker is considering buying back some vehicles. The US Justice Department sued VW last month for up to $46bn for allegedly violating environmental laws.

Last week, VW won approval to start fixing 8.5 million vehicles in Europe.

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