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EU action to curb air pollution by cars – Q&A

The European Commission is taking action to curb air pollution from cars and commercial vehicles. In a quick fire Q&A the Commission answers many of the questions on the topic.

What are the risks associated with vehicle emissions?

Emissions of air pollutants are the most significant environmental cause of premature death in the EU, and lead to respiratory diseases, major healthcare costs and lost working days. The most recent data indicate that three air pollutants alone (PM 2.5, NO2 and O3) are responsible for 400 000 premature deaths per year in the EU including some 70.000 directly linked to nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Urban transport is also one of the reasons why many urban areas are in breach of air pollution limits.

How are pollutant emissions of vehicles regulated at EU level?

Over the past decades, the Commission has led EU efforts to progressively reduce emissions of air quality pollutants from road vehicles by improving the quality of fuels and by setting increasingly stringent emission limits for new vehicles.

On NOx emissions specifically – the Commission has tightened the maximum NOx emissions limits for diesel passenger cars on several occasions:
January 2000: 500 mg/km (Euro 3)
January 2005: 250 mg/km (Euro 4)
September 2009: 180 mg/km (Euro 5)
September 2014: 80 mg/km (Euro 6)

But that alone does not suffice. The recent emission scandal has shown that some cars on the road today do not respect these values under real driving conditions, meaning more pollutants are released into the air we breathe.

The introduction of the Real Driving Emissions test procedure is further tightening the rules since it will check the emissions of NOx and ultrafine particles (Particle Number – PN) from vehicles on the road and will significantly reduce the current discrepancy between emissions measured in real driving and those measured in a laboratory.

In addition, the Commission continues to push for full application of existing air quality targets across the EU and is developing ambitious initiatives to foster low emission vehicles.

How are car emissions tested?

Before a car is allowed to be placed on the market, it needs to be “type approved”: the national authority needs to certify that the prototypes of the model meet all EU safety, environmental and conformity of production requirements before authorising the sale of the vehicle type in the EU.
Currently, only a laboratory test is used to measure the air pollution emissions of a vehicle. However, for pollutants such as ultrafine particles and NOx, emissions of some vehicles measured on the road in reality substantially exceed the emissions measured on the currently applicable laboratory test cycle (New European Drive Cycle – NEDC). To correct the shortcoming, the Commission proposed, already before the emissions scandal emerged in September 2015, to measure emissions in real driving conditions.

What is the Real Driving Emissions test?

In the Real Driving Emissions (RDE) procedure, pollutant emissions – which include nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate emissions – are measured by portable emission measuring systems (PEMS) that are attached to the car while driving in real conditions on the road. This means that the car will be driven outside and on a real road according to random variations of parameters such as acceleration, deceleration, ambient temperature, and payloads.
The RDE procedure does not replace but complements the laboratory test, which has also been improved to better reflect real driving conditions, in particular to provide more realistic CO2 emission and fuel consumption figures.

What are the various “RDE Acts”?

RDE was developed in four separate regulatory acts:

RDE Act 1: The first step was to define the actual test procedure. This was voted positively by the Member States in the Technical Committee of Motor Vehicles (TCMV) in May 2015 and entered into force in 2016. In the initial phase starting in early 2016, the RDE testing was only done for monitoring purposes, without an impact on the actual type approval which continued to be delivered on the basis of laboratory measurements.

RDE Act 2: The second step determined the phasing in of RDE testing to have an actual impact on type approvals issued by national authorities. On 28 October 2015, Member States meeting in the Technical Committee of Motor Vehicles (TCMV) agreed that RDE measurements of NOx would be compulsory for new car models from September 2017, and for all new vehicles from September 2019.

RDE Act 3: As a third step, Member States in the TCMV adopted on 20 December 2016 the Commission proposal to extend RDE testing to cover particle number (PN) emissions for all new vehicle types by September 2017and for all new vehicles by September 2018. These very small but cancerous particles exist in diesel cars as well as petrol cars with direct injection technology. Under RDE Act 3, the Commission also fine-tuned the testing methods to take into account that short city trips starting with a cold engine generate most city pollution. To cover a broader range of conditions, hot engine starts will now also be included. In addition, this Act also mandates that the real-world emission performance of a car should be clearly stated by the manufacturer in the certificate of conformity of each vehicle, i.e. that it is transparent and available for all citizens and public authorities.

RDE Act 4: The Commission also plans to table a proposal in the coming months to include further strengthen RDE legislation by adding the possibility of independent testing by third parties for checks of cars already in circulation (“in-service conformity” testing), introducing new and more representative methods for testing hybrid vehicles and adapting provisions for certain special vehicle types.

What is the conformity factor in the Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure?

Contrary to a pre-defined laboratory test cycle, the intrinsic characteristics of the PEMS measurement equipment in RDE tests leads to a higher variation and wider range of the quantitative emission results of different RDE trips. If the technical and statistical uncertainties of RDE measurements are not duly taken into account, it might happen that vehicles that actually are compliant could fail an individual RDE test or vehicles that actually are non-compliant could pass the test.

The concept of Conformity Factor (CF) helps overcome this problem. With a conformity factor, the focus is put on the vehicle’s average compliance with emission limits. For example, regulatory emission limits may be exceeded when driving up a steep hill, which then must be compensated by emissions below the regulatory emission limits under different conditions, such as driving moderately in the city, so that the average emissions, when weighing these conditions according to their statistical occurrence, are not above the limits.

Given the novelty of Real Driving Emissions test measurements and the technical limits to improve the real world emission performance of currently produced diesel cars in the short-term, Member States agreed in October 2015 on a phasing-in period for reducing the divergence between the regulatory limit measured in laboratory conditions and the values of the Real Driving Emissions procedure. The agreement foresees a two-step approach:

1. In the first phase, to allow adapting to the new requirements, manufacturers will have to bring down the discrepancy to a conformity factor of maximum 2.1 (i.e. 168mg/km NOx instead of 80mg/km) for new models by September 2017 (for all new vehicles by September 2019);
2. In the second phase, this discrepancy will be brought further down to a factor of 1.5 (i.e. 120mg/km NOx instead of 80mg/km), taking account of technical margins of error, by January 2020 for all new models (by January 2021 for all new vehicles). To take account of future improvements of the measuring technology, this factor will be subject to annual reviews starting in 2017 and as the technology improves, the conformity factor will be reduced further with the aim of bringing the conformity factor down to 1 as soon as possible and at the latest by 2023. Car manufacturers should thus already start designing vehicles for compliance with a conformity factor close to 1 (=80mg/km Nox).
What about CO2 emissions testing?

The Commission has also introduced a new, more realistic, laboratory test procedure – the new World Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP) for measuring CO2 emissions and fuel consumption from cars and vans. The WLTP is a globally harmonised test procedure developed within the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) with the support of the European Commission.

The WLTP replaces the New European Drive Cycle (NEDC), which no longer reflects adequately today’s driving conditions or vehicle technologies. The WLTP will provide fuel consumption and CO2 emission values that are more representative of real world conditions to the benefit of consumers and regulators both at EU and national levels. It will be a stronger incentive for the deployment of fuel efficient and low-carbon technologies.

The new WLTP test was adopted by the Commission on 1 June 2017 and it will be mandatory for all new car models from September 2017 and for all new cars from September 2018.

What else is the Commission doing to make the type approval system more robust?

The new test procedures will make emissions measurements more realistic and accurate, and to a great extent reduce the risk of cheating with defeat devices. But a wider overhaul of the actual type approval system is needed.

That is why in January 2016 the Commission proposed a new regulation to overhaul the current type approval system. The proposal aims to reinforce the independence and quality of technical services designated for the testing and inspection of the vehicle’s compliance with EU type approval requirements; introduce an effective market surveillance system to control the conformity of cars already in circulation; and introduce greater European oversight. This includes the possibility for the Commission to suspend, restrict or withdraw the designation of technical services that are underperforming and too lax in applying the rules. The Commission would also be able to carry out ex-post verification testing (through its Joint Research Centre) and, if needed, initiate recalls. And the Commission would be allowed to impose financial penalties to deter manufacturers and technical services from allowing non-compliant vehicles onto the market.
The Commission’s proposal maintains the current ban on defeat devices, which national authorities have a standing obligation to police and enforce, but goes a step further. Under the draft Regulation, the manufacturer will have to provide access to the car’s software protocols. This measure complements the Real Driving Emissions package, which will make it very difficult to circumvent emission requirements and includes an obligation for manufacturers to disclose their emissions reduction strategy, as is the case in the US.
The Commission calls on the European Parliament and Council to now swiftly conclude their negotiations on this proposal.

What is the Commission doing about the diesel cars currently in circulation which pollute too much?

The Commission has already opened infringement procedures against eight Member States for breach of EU type approval legislation in December 2016 and May 2017, and continues to monitor whether EU law in the area is being properly enforced. The Commission will also ensure that competition rules are respected and will continue working for a fair deal for consumers.

More recently, the Commission has called on Member States to take all necessary measures to ensure that non-compliant cars are fixed or withdrawn from circulation. It is essential that any repairs proposed by car manufacturers are validated by the national authorities to bring the cars into full conformity, without any adverse effects on the vehicle performance, its durability and its fuel consumption. This needs to be done as soon as possible to rapidly reduce NOx emissions of the existing diesel fleet in Europe.

The Commission takes note of recent efforts by some Member States and car manufacturers to address the current situation, and looks forward to receiving full information about measures taken at national level. In particular, the Commission will be looking into whether the proposed measures will be sufficient to reduce NOx emissions in line with legal requirements and thus contribute to improving air quality. It also stands ready to facilitate the exchange of this information between Member States in the interest of consistency and effectiveness.

What is the Commission doing to improve Air Quality?

EU rules do not only limit emissions by cars but also establish objectives for air quality which are constantly monitored and enforced. The local air quality standards (setting limit and/or target values for a range of air pollutants which may not be exceeded) are set under the Ambient Air Quality Directives. As regards NO2 specifically, a majority of Member States, and more than 130 cities in these have continuously and persistently not complied with the limit values for several years, so that efficient measures are urgently needed.

The Commission also adopted a Clean Air Policy Package in December 2013, which resulted in:
new air quality policy objectives for the period up to 2030;

a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (Directive 2016/2284/EU) with stricter national emission ceilings for the five main pollutants (Sulphur dioxide (SO2), NOx, non-methane Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), NH3 and Particulate Matter (PM2.5).Implementation of the new Directive will cut the annual 400.000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in the EU by about half by 2030.

a new Directive (Directive 2015/2193/EU) to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations.

The Commission will work to support all Member States on solid implementation, also involving the local and regional authorities, to deliver on the benefits from today until 2030.

How is the Commission fostering low and zero-emissions cars?

As highlighted in the Commission’s Communications “A European strategy for low emission mobility” of July 2016, and “Europe on the Move” of May 2017, the EU must accelerate Europe’s transition towards zero-emission mobility in moving towards an energy-efficient, decarbonised transport sector.

As part of the first Mobility package, the Commission revised the ‘Eurovignette’ Directive to, among other things, promote charges based on emissions performance of vehicles.

As part of the second Mobility package, the Commission is currently working on a number of initiatives to be unveiled before the end of the year. In this context, the Commission is currently working on EU CO2 standards for cars and vans to help pave the way for zero and low-emission vehicles in a technology-neutral way. An impact assessment is ongoing and various options are under review. It is also revising the ‘Clean Vehicles Directive’ to promote the uptake of cleaner vehicles through public procurement.

In addition, the Commission is also planning to present an assessment of Member States’ policy frameworks for the market development of alternative fuels and their infrastructure. This report will follow upon the requirement laid down in Directive 2014/94/EU on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure, which requires the Member States to notify to the European Commission, by 18 November 2016, on their National Policy Frameworks (NPF) as regards the development of the market for alternative fuels, including the deployment of the necessary infrastructure. The report will include an Action Plan which will highlight concrete actions and will set clear recommendations for Member States on closing existing gaps and addressing identified needs as well as outlining action to mobilise finance.

In addition, the Connecting Europe Facility already supports the implementation of alternative fuels strategy by stimulating energy efficiency, introducing alternative propulsion systems, including electricity supply systems, and providing corresponding infrastructure. For the period 2014-2020, the CEF Transport is endowed with €24 billion.

Zero-emission vehicles are also a specific priority of the GEAR 2030 High Level Group, composed of experts from the sector under the leadership of Commissioner Bieńkowska. A final report by this group, expected in autumn, should present policy recommendations on promoting the competitiveness of the EU automotive industry, and particularly as regards zero-emission and automated cars. On this basis, the Commission will then present concrete ideas up to 2030.

Further information

Press release: New and improved car emissions tests become mandatory on 1 September
RDE acts:
RDE Act 1
RDE Act 2
RDE Act 3
Press release on the type approval proposal
Proposal for a Regulation on the approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles
Commission communication “Europe on the Move”