European car pollution warning

Posted: 19 October 2004

Inadequate test standards in Europe are underestimating emissions of harmful air pollutants from new cars and evidence indicates that many diesel car owners are making things worse by modifying their engines to increase their power.

According to a report by the European Environment Agency these factors may be among the reasons why air pollution in Europe's cities is not falling faster.

In addition, because the test cycle for new vehicles does not cover air conditioning and some other types of energy-consuming equipment, Europe's progress towards cutting new car emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) appears greater than it really is.

"Ensuring that vehicles actually meet the emission standards in the real world should be a priority," said Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, in a speech to a high-level Dutch government conference on sustainable mobility held in Amsterdam on October 19. The two-day conference will make recommendations to the new European Commission taking office in November 2004.

Pressure growing

The EEA report and an accompanying briefing paper, launched at the conference, show that transport volumes are growing at roughly the same rate as the economy - despite the European Union's goal of weakening this link - and continuing to intensify pressures on the environment.

These pressures include rising emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases as the market shares of road and air transport continue to grow, threatening biological diversity from the fragmentation or disturbance of wildlife habitats by roads, railways and airports. Improvements in vehicle technology are succeeding in reducing air pollution from road transport despite the growth in traffic volumes, the agency says. Emissions of regulated pollutants (excluding those from aviation and marine shipping) fell by 24-35 per cent between 1990 and 2001 in the 31 EEA member countries.

But transport-related air pollution in urban areas still contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year across Europe. And overall CO2 emissions from all methods of transport are projected to increase by 25 per cent between 1990 and 2010. Without improvements in car technology the rise would be 35 per cent.

On a brighter note, strong growth under way in the use of biofuels - transport fuels made from crops and other organic material - should help the transport sector to limit increases in its CO2 emissions. However, it is important that the biofuels are produced in ways that minimise other potentially negative impacts on the environment, the report says.

Fares rising

Further key messages from the report include:

  • Aviation is the fastest-growing transport mode and its impacts on the climate, from emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, will soon exceed those of passenger vehicles.

  • Rail and bus fares are rising faster than the cost of private car use, giving cars an advantage over public transport. Progress is slow in restructuring transport charges to reflect different modes' costs in terms of damage to infrastructure and the environment.

  • Transport infrastructure, especially road and high-speed rail networks, is continuing to expand and thus further fragmenting the landscape. Optimising the use of existing infrastructure through road pricing or congestion charging would allow this growth to be limited.

Related link:

The report is available at eea report