Europe Prolongs Its Diesel Problem

Unclean at any speed.

Photographer: DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

Responding to public outrage over the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, the European Union rightly pledged to toughen emissions testing and enforce limits on nitrogen oxides (NOx), a hazardous type of diesel pollutant. But those moves amount to very little, now that the EU is giving the auto industry until 2020 to comply, and then only partially. The delay will just prolong the shift away from diesel.

While it will be useful to have on-road testing, starting in 2017, EU regulators decided Wednesday to allow new car models to exceed legal levels of NOx by 110 percent until the beginning of 2020. Even after that, they can go over the limit by 50 percent. The adjustment period for existing car models is still longer.

The concessions might make sense if the technology to meet the limit had yet to be developed. But selective catalytic reduction and other NOx-limiting mechanisms have been available for years. Carmakers argue that they impose an added hassle and expense on consumers. But it is precisely the kind of burden that consumers must consider in deciding whether to buy a diesel car rather than an electric or a hybrid.

Delaying the emissions limits compounds the market-distorting effects of the Europe's initial decision, in the mid-1990s, to promote diesel engines with lower excise taxes and relatively lax environmental standards. These benefits explain why 35 percent of cars in the EU are diesel.

American carmakers may be quietly cheering Europe's folly, as it could prompt China to drop European car emissions standards in favor of stricter U.S. ones.

What's worse for Europe is that the delay on diesel rules undermines its credibility on limiting emissions. With key environmental talks coming up in Paris in just over a month, Europe has promised ambitious greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. But can it be trusted to follow through? 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.