Stricter EU regulations are called for, as the Volkswagen scandal breaks

By Yasmine Hassan and Chloe Lam

BRUSSELS – Politicians and environmental groups are hoping that the Volkswagen cheating scandal, which has shaken the automobile industry for weeks, would be a wake up call for the European Union.

They urge the European Commission for stricter regulations, more ambitious standards and better implementation.

“I hope the Volkswagen case will shake the Commission because they apparently knew that this [the fraud] was taking place and they did not do enough, at least to prevent it,” Social Democrat member of the European Parliament, Christel Schaldemose, says.

Several weeks ago, news broke that the German automobile manufacturer, Volkswagen, was caught using “defeat devices” for over 6 years to bypass the vehicle environmental standards. As the infringement was uncovered in the United States, loopholes within the EU were thus revealed, leading to major criticisms towards the European regulations and emission tests.

Volkswagen was busted for using deceptive software to fiddle fuel economy tests. When vehicles were operating under controlled laboratory conditions, the device would put the vehicle in a mode in which the engine had lower emissions. Once on the road, the engines are switched out of this mode and emit harmful gases such as nitrogen oxides, up to 40% above permitted standards.

Professor Torben Sigsgaard, head of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aarhus University, points out that the inadequacy of the current EU standards lies in setting and calculating caps for the cars emissions, instead of measuring the real concentrations in the air.

“The discrepancies between what is calculated and what is measured in reality are increasing, meaning that the emission ceilings are not giving the right picture, Sigsgaard explains. “I would prefer having concentration ceilings because concentration is what people are really exposed to.”

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Figure 1: European cars have to undergo certain environmental emission tests, but some are suspected to have cheated

According to Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), which represents around 50 environmental organizations across Europe, discrepancies between test statistics and real world emissions can go up to 50%, suspecting that current EU tests and regulations on air quality are prone to fraud and loopholes.

Public health groups are calling for binding regulation and proper implementation. “The laws were set but the proper enforcement failed; and the scandal broke out in the US where the enforcement was more strict,” Zoltan Massay-Kosubek of the European Public Health Alliance says.

Lawmakers wish to keep putting pressure on the European Commission.

“This is an enormous wake up call and now it is much more difficult for them to hide what is going on,” says Margrete Auken, member of the Greens Group in the European Parliament.

In response, the spokesperson for environment in the European Commission, Enrico Brivio says that the incident is not about how tight the EU standards are, since the existing law was broken. “It is rather up to the member states to take appropriate legislative and enforcement measures in order to make sure that the set directives are put in place,” Brivio says. He refers that 17 member states are already facing infringement procedures for not being able to meet the EU standards.