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European diesel bans face criticism by EU Commissioner

The EU Commissioner for Industry has written a letter warning European transport ministers against banning diesel cars in certain cities, arguing that this would deprive automakers of funds to invest emissions reduction.

Several German cities are considering – or have considered – bans on diesel vehicles with particularly noxious emissions: this includes Munich, home to BMW. The Green Party has proposed a ban on diesel vehicles in towns and cities, and earlier this month, Nicolas Hulot, the new French Ecology Minister, announced that France will ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040, forcing automakers to develop zero-emission alternatives.

In a letter, Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, argued that the “collapse” of the diesel vehicles market will bring no benefit. For now, she said, the focus of governments should be on encouraging automakers to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions enough for their vehicles to meet increasingly strict EU emission limits.

“While I am convinced that we should rapidly head for zero-emission vehicles in Europe, policymakers and industry cannot have an interest in a rapid collapse of the diesel market in Europe as a result of local driving bans,” she wrote. “It would only deprive the industry of necessary funds to invest in zero-emissions vehicles.”

Diesel technology offers greater fuel efficiency than petrol engines, and is seen as a potential means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Germany’s three major car manufacturers have, in recent years, invested heavily in this technology in a strategic step away from vehicles that leave a high carbon footprint.

Since 2015, when Volkswagen became the first automaker to be embroiled in the emissions test cheating scandal – in which numerous automakers have been shown to have hidden their vehicles’ true nitrogen oxide emission from regulators – diesel vehicles have come under greater scrutiny. Nitrogen oxides are known to contribute to smog and acid rain, and cause or aggravate a range of health conditions, including respiratory disease.

Referring to the latest cases in the ongoing emissions test cheating scandal, Bienkowska said that she was concerned by Germany’s vehicle and transport authorities failing to discover the deceptions Audi and Porsche. These were instead unearthed by prosecutors.

Bienkowska suggested that an EU testing agency could be established if national regulators continue to fail at spotting instances of cheating.

In her letter, Bienkowska said that all cars with excessively high nitrogen oxide emissions should not be allowed to be driven in Europe, although she argued that this should come about through the voluntary actions of automakers.

“Her letter contained some important statements that we believe show the [automotive] industry’s lobbyists have scored a big win,” said Max Warburton, an analyst for Bernstein. “They have likely argued that castigating or banning diesel would harm the industry’s earnings and employees, harm efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and harm owners of current vehicles.”

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