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Commentary. European Parliament has increased maximum emissions standards by double. The car industry wins. Our lungs lose.

In Strasbourg, a vote against our health

The European Parliament voted to increase maximum emissions limits by more than double for nitrogen oxides (NOx) in diesel emissions in the new Euro 6 regulations (168 mg per kilometer compared with 80 mg in 2007). This is a gift to the car industry and a confirmation that our lungs are not a priority. It is estimated that over 70,000 people have died in Europe in relation to these pollution levels. Starting from 2020, there is a lower limit (120 mg per km) but that is anyway 50 percent higher than what was discussed nine years ago.

It was already known that actual NOx emissions from diesel vehicles are very different from those declared. For Euro 5 diesel, estimates of actual emissions on the road were four to five times larger than those reported, for the inventories of emissions drawn up by the environmental agencies. In regards to the CO2 emissions, the association Transport & Environment (T&E) has been publishing a report for years to highlight the differences on the road compared to the formal statements, those found in the advertisements of vehicles.

The Volkswagen case made this charade visible globally. Now, regulators are legalizing the abuse. Despite “dieselgate,” the car industry wins and our lungs lose. Who is responsible for this brilliant result? Primarily the pressure from European governments.

This led the “tolerance” on the emission tests to increase 50 percent, while the technical reports indicated that the correct amplitude variance is 20 percent, as T&E rightly noted, which calls for a revision in 2017.

The role of diesel cars in European markets rose for structural reasons. In anticipation of a lower future availability of oil, a change in the refining process started to produce less gasoline and more diesel fuel, so as to optimize the productivity of the barrel for products that are increasingly linked to transportation. As a result, now much less oil is being produced (which in the past served to cover more than half of electricity production in Italy).

This “product slip” had as its counterpart a significant increase in diesel vehicles: Today, there are more than 15 million diesel cars in Italy, compared to 18 million gasoline cars and 2 million LPG and methane gas cars.

In summary, governments are more interested in protecting the automobile and oil industries than our lungs, where smog and combustion products are filtered. We need to get rid of this addiction. It would take intelligent transportation policies and promotion of electric mobility, fueled by an ever increasing share of renewable energy. The technologies are there, but unfortunately the car industry is one of those fossil dinosaurs that would like to continue as usual. Governments promote drilling of fossil fuel sources, blocking alternatives.

The referendum on drilling will be an opportunity to debate the future we want to see. But it should be merged with administrative acts. If Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano says a law is needed, then have the government draft one and save more than €300 million of expenditures. After all, wasn’t the open conflict between the Italian government and the E.U. over Turkey about saving money?

Giuseppe Onufrio is Executive Director of Greenpeace Italy.

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