The European vehicle emissions standards set a limit on the amount of pollution that can be released by all petrol and diesel cars and vans. These include emissions harmful to human health, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).

The European Commission has been drafting Euro 7 with the intention of ensuring “vehicles are clean over their lifetime” and to “accelerate the shift to sustainable and smart mobility”. However, following the release of leaked drafts suggesting that the stringent standards required were unlikely to be implemented, these fears have been confirmed and those hoping that the Dieselgate scandal has compelled legislators and policymakers to crack down on vehicle manufacturers have been left disappointed.

Leigh Day represents over 245,000 diesel vehicle owners in their emissions claims against motor manufacturers who allegedly fitted so-called ‘defeat devices’ in their vehicles to artificially reduce emissions. We believe our clients were deliberately misled over the environmental performance of their vehicles and as a result are entitled to financial compensation.

However, litigation is only part of the picture, and it was hoped that The Commission would recognise the need to take legislative action and implement much needed reforms.

The air pollution problem: the road to the Dieselgate Litigation

Increased levels of toxic NOx emissions are harmful to the environment and to the health of children and adults. Indeed, air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health in Europe. In 2018 alone, there were around 70,000 premature deaths in the European Union caused by road transport emissions, mostly NOx and PM.

In a bid to combat this issue, the European Commission had been expected to draft the Euro 7 regulation referring to the recommendations put forward by an EU-appointed group of experts in the field of emissions.

The implementation of the experts’ recommendations would have seen Euro 7 improve upon the efforts of Euro 6 and further reduce pollution limits for diesel and petrol vehicles, halving NOx emission limits from 60 to 30mg per km. Unfortunately, the leaked draft of Euro 7 effectively disregards the experts’ advice and simply proposes to align the diesel emissions standards with the current standards for petrol vehicles in the existing Euro 6. Petrol emissions standards remain completely unchanged.

Following the revelation from VW in 2015 that cycle detection software was present in certain vehicles, a group action was brought on behalf of approximately 91,000 VW owners. Leigh Day were the joint-lead lawyers in the hard-fought group action which settled out of court in May 2022 after five years of litigation.

Whilst no admissions in respect of liability, causation or loss were made by VW, they agreed to make a payment of £193m to the claimants. The case is the biggest consumer group action ever to be brought before the English courts and represents the biggest compensation payout in a consumer claim in England and Wales. Following the success of our litigation against VW, Leigh Day is currently pursuing follow-on claims against a wide range of other manufacturers including Mercedes, BMW, Mini, Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroën, Nissan, Renault, Ford and Volvo.

But what lessons have been learnt from Dieselgate, if any?

A wasted opportunity

It has been over seven years since the Dieselgate scandal first hit the headlines. Consumers and the wider public have had to bear both the significant financial and health-related consequences of the ‘defeat devices’ used by many vehicle manufacturers to cheat emissions tests.

The public’s trust in the manufacturers has been eroded as a consequence and the actions of the manufacturers have worked to undermine the purpose and authority of the emissions standards. Euro 7 presented the EU with an opportunity to redress some of the damage caused by the scandal and reassure the public that lessons have been learned.

Unfortunately, the proposal fails to properly tackle the air pollution issue and is arguably a feeble attempt by the EU to demonstrate that it is enacting its commitment with the European Green Deal to transition towards a ‘zero-pollution economy in Europe’.

It is not the case that the Commission has been constrained by a lack of ideas or solutions to tackle the issue of harmful emissions being pumped out on our roads. A group of highly regarded experts has given the Commission the tools to create legislation which develops stricter emissions standards, the enactment of which would truly show a commitment to reducing air pollution and delivering on that ‘zero-pollution’ objective.

This begs the question: why haven’t they? The Commission has had to understandably draft the Euro 7 legislation in the context of a continent still coping with the economic aftershock caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.

Car industry lobbyists have intensely resisted the calls for more stringent emissions standards, arguing the industry is already struggling with the pressures caused by these recent crises. The purported dilution of Euro 7 would sadly indicate that the EU has weighed up these various factors and chosen to protect the interests of industry and commerce over those of the environment and the public.

It is hard to see the Euro 7 proposals as anything more than a missed opportunity and it is disappointing that the EU has not followed the example of countries such as the USA in implementing more ambitious emissions standards.

Vehicles thresholds are significantly lower in the US (with proposals from the EPA even more ambitious in 2022) and as a result of poorer compliance regulations, the average car in the EU is emitting around six to 10 times the amount of NOx emitted by an equivalent car in the USA.

It is clear that further action must be taken by the EU to hold manufacturers to higher standards, and the litigation being brought on behalf of diesel vehicle owners is only part of the picture when it comes to creating vital long-term change.