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January 24, 2024

EU auditors lament persistent gap in lab and real-world emissions data

Hybrid sports utility vehicles. Brussels-headquartered non-profit Transport and Environment found vehicles in the EU are getting wider by an average of one centimetre every two years (Photo: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg)
Hybrid sports utility vehicles. Brussels-headquartered non-profit Transport and Environment found vehicles in the EU are getting wider by an average of one centimetre every two years (Photo: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg)

The disparity between new vehicles’ performance in manufacturers’ tests and their real-world emissions is limiting the EU’s ability to meet emissions reduction targets, says a European Court of Auditors report

Since the 2015 Dieselgate scandal, which exposed systemic cheating of emissions tests by carmakers, the EU has overhauled the way cars are tested. But despite changes, testing is still not showing real-world emissions, and carbon emissions from passenger cars across the EU have risen by 15 per cent compared with 1990 levels, the European Court of Auditors has found. 

Aside from a drop in emissions in 2020 because of reduced movement during the Covid-19 pandemic, road emissions have increased steadily between 1990 and 2021 across the 27 EU member states, despite EU regulation aimed at reducing emissions, the auditors say.

The Dieselgate scandal exposed the practice of car manufacturers exploiting design “loopholes” to produce low results in vehicle emissions testing. In September 2017, a new laboratory test cycle, which better reflects actual driving conditions, became mandatory “but did not eliminate” the gap between lab and real-world emissions, the report says.

It points out that factors such as driver behaviour, outside temperature, traffic, altitude and the use of energy-consuming features (for example, lights and air conditioning) mean that new passenger vehicles’ emissions on the road are higher than they are during laboratory tests.

Over the past decade, emissions for diesel-powered cars in the EU have remained constant, while they have marginally decreased (4.6 per cent lower) for petrol cars. Engine efficiency has seen technological progress, but this is “outweighed by increased vehicle mass (about 10 per cent higher on average) and more powerful engines” in line with the fashion for sport utility vehicles and other larger cars, the report adds.

A briefing published by Brussels-headquartered non-profit Transport and Environment in January found vehicles in the EU are getting wider by an average of 1 centimetre every two years, and says this trend is negatively impacting pedestrians and cyclists and increasing emissions, resource and energy use.

Meanwhile, the auditors’ report says EU emissions performance standards for new passenger cars – which require cars and vans driving on EU roads to reduce tailpipe emissions by 100 per cent by 2035 – need to be “more efficient and effective”. 

It recommends that member states monitor EU-based carmakers more closely to ensure the accuracy of their testing and reporting by 2025. International manufacturers supplying vehicles to the EU market should also check more throughly the data used for certificates of conformity, which are submitted to the European Commission to ensure vehicles meet environmental and safety regulations.

The report also suggests the wider rollout by 2025 of standardised electronic reporting tools, such as the European Environment Agency’s online reporting platform Reportnet 3, and the introduction from 2026 of real-world emissions targets for manufacturer, which more accurately reflect vehicle use.

Electric vehicles are the most effective means of reducing emissions, the report finds, but conventional combustion-engine vehicles still account for three-quarters of new vehicle registrations in the EU. The main barriers to EV adoption are access to raw materials to build batteries for manufacturers and the availability of battery charging infrastructure, the report says. 

Seventy per cent of car battery chargers are located in just three EU member states (France, Germany and the Netherlands), the authors add, and call on the EU to increase charging availability in other EU states.

The report is available to read here.

A service from the Financial Times