EU could be preparing tougher car emissions rules

Report from Court of Auditors shows that real-world performance is well below laboratory results on emissions and fuel economy

A report by the European Court of Auditors has found that official economy and emissions checks on new cars are significantly overestimating their performance, and that in the real world, cars are much more thirsty and polluting.

The auditor’s report also urges the European Commission to discard the current emissions regulation, and the incoming new Euro7 regulations, in favour of a completely new regime built around dramatically increasing the sale of electric cars from 2026 onwards.

“With our findings and recommendations, we aim to provide input for the Commission and stakeholders to make the implementation of the Regulation more efficient and effective in reducing new passenger car CO₂ emissions and help the EU meet its 2030 and 2050 climate targets,” write the auditors in the report. “While car CO₂ emissions data were collected and verified by the Commission in line with the Regulation, there is insufficient assurance on the accuracy of CO₂ emissions declared by manufacturers on certificates of conformity for new cars at the start of the process.”

The problem seems to lie with the WLTP (world harmonised light duty vehicle test procedure), the official test for fuel economy and emissions. Originally introduced in 2018, the WTLP test was partly a reaction to “Dieselgate” and it aimed to close off a lot of the testing loopholes that existed in the old NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) test. Thus, the WLTP test was longer in duration, covered a greater distance, at higher speeds, and with account taken of optional extras and so on.


However, according to the Court of Auditors, the WLTP test is still overestimating how efficient cars are. The report suggests that the economy of petrol-engine cars is being overestimated by 23 per cent compared with observed real-world figures, while the number for diesel-engined cars is 18 per cent.

Furthermore, the report recommends that the EU should refocus its emissions reduction legislation, and instead of having corporate average emissions levels that manufacturers need to meet, that from 2026 legislation should enforce a minimum number of electric vehicle sales. “We consider that the CO₂ emission reduction targets for new passenger cars and the EU’s climate ambitions up to 2030 are not sufficiently well aligned. The key challenge for meeting emission reduction targets for 2030 and beyond will be to ensure a sufficient uptake of zero-emission vehicles. In particular, it will be important to address electric vehicle affordability, provide sufficient electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and secure the supply of raw materials to produce batteries,” write the auditors.

At the same time, the European Commission has also issued a report that looks into emissions, and while it is not as damning as that from the auditors, it does note serious concerns over the use of plug-in hybrid cars, and has said that real-world data indicates that they are not being plugged in enough to meet their claimed CO₂ emissions and fuel economy figures. From next year that data will be fed into legislation that will see the official on-paper emissions of such plug-in hybrid vehicles revised upwards, which could have significant tax implications both for consumers and for car makers.

The reports will make unwelcome reading in car company boardrooms, especially as the recently finalised Euro7 regulations, which had been expected to be somewhat draconian, were actually pretty gentle on car makers, by and large.

The Court of Auditor’s report in particular could change all that, if it is taken up in full by the European Commission, and legislation is created around its recommendations. Of course, there are many slips between the cup or recommendations and the lip of legislation — car makers drew more than a little flak for their lobbying efforts to water down the Euro7 regulations, and having had success doing so, doubtless that will be the response once again.

According to eco-think-tank Transport & Environment, the time for doubling down on emissions regulations is now. William Todts, executive director of T&E, said: “The good news is transport emissions in Europe have peaked. The bad news is other sectors are decarbonising three times faster. In 2030 nearly half of the continent’s emissions will come from mobility, making it the problem child of Europe’s climate efforts. Decarbonising the sector as quickly as possible is now vital if the continent is to reach zero by 2050. Cars burning petrol and diesel are the overwhelming source of transport emissions, accounting for more than 40 per cent. Car dependence has increased since the 1990s, enabled by motorway building and a growing car fleet. Only recently are we starting to see a reduction in average car emissions as a wave of electric vehicles come to the market.”

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring