Limited Reduction in Car Emissions Despite Strict Regulations

Despite stringent regulations and ambitious climate goals set by the EU, most cars still emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as they did twelve years ago, according to a study by the European Court of Auditors.

Hardly less car emissions – despite strict regulations

Despite ambitious EU climate goals and strict requirements from Brussels, most cars still emit the same amount of greenhouse gases today as they did twelve years ago. The hope: more electric cars. The EU has significantly reduced the emissions of climate-harming gases in some sectors over the past decades – except for transportation. It still accounts for about a quarter of EU emissions, with a large portion coming from car exhaust pipes. According to a study by the European Court of Auditors, existing regulations have made little difference.

According to the agency, emissions from new cars on the road in the decade before 2020 hardly decreased. Although the engines became more powerful, they also became more horsepower-intensive and the cars became heavier. As a result, despite ambitious climate goals and strict requirements, the majority of cars still emit the same amount of greenhouse gases in everyday use as they did twelve years ago.

Laboratory and reality

According to the Luxembourg auditors, vehicle manufacturers have focused more on reducing CO2 emissions measured in the laboratory than in actual driving conditions. They have exploited loopholes in the regulations, according to the Court of Auditors.

The gap between road and laboratory values has significantly widened over the past 20 years. The difference between the two values was nearly 40 percent. As a result of the diesel scandal, the requirements were tightened. According to the auditors, this has reduced the difference between emissions measured on the test bench and those caused during actual driving, but has not eliminated it.

The difference between emissions in practical operation and in laboratory conditions can now be calculated more accurately through fuel consumption meters in vehicles. In 2021, it averaged 18 percent for diesel vehicles, 24 percent for gasoline vehicles, and 250 percent for plug-in hybrids.

According to the German Association of the Automotive Industry, every second car sold in Europe is from a German manufacturer. The association also emphasizes that fuel consumption and range of vehicles are determined according to a legally prescribed, globally recognized, and harmonized test procedure.

Poor ratings for hybrid vehicles

Hybrid vehicles do not fare well in the assessment by the Luxembourg agency. The study shows that they cause significantly higher emissions in actual driving conditions than in the laboratory. The explanation is that the combustion engine is used more frequently than expected, especially in company cars. Since the companies usually cover the fuel costs, there is no financial incentive for employees to recharge the batteries.

Nevertheless, plug-in hybrids are still considered low-emission vehicles – according to the Court of Auditors, a multi-billion-dollar advantage for car manufacturers without a significant contribution to climate protection. The EU has no chance of achieving its climate goals with conventional combustion engines or hybrid vehicles alone.

Negligent authorities

Additionally, the Court of Auditors criticizes the negligent implementation of EU decisions in the member states. For example, national authorities confirm with type approval that a vehicle type produced in larger quantities meets the legal requirements.

In Germany, the Federal Motor Transport Authority confirmed for 2020 and 2021 that the manufacturers had tested the required minimum number of vehicles – the competent authorities in Italy and the Netherlands did not provide corresponding evidence. According to the study, in all three countries examined, the audits carried out by the authorities for 2020 did not provide sufficient assurance of data quality. According to the Court of Auditors, the data contained incorrect values or lacked information.

Hope for electric cars

Unlike the two decades before, the emissions of newly registered vehicles in practical driving conditions have continuously decreased over the past three years – a result of more electric cars on Europe’s roads. In 2018, only one out of every 100 newly registered vehicles was purely battery-powered, but last year it was one in seven.

However, according to the Court of Auditors, the EU is struggling to ultimately promote the breakthrough of electric cars. There is a lack of necessary raw materials, battery production capacity needs to be increased, electric cars are too expensive, and there is a need for significantly more charging stations.

Currently, a tour of Europe with an electric car is challenging. Two-thirds of all EU charging stations are concentrated in just three countries: Germany, France, and the Netherlands.