Carmakers accused of 'clutching at straws' over retrofitting polluting diesels

VW, BMW, Opel and Daimler’s promise to fix 5 million cars not enough to undo the damage done by emissions scandal, say campaigners

Major car makers are being accused of clutching at straws after they agreed to fit software to 5m diesel vehicles in Germany to reduce harmful emissions by up to 30%.

VW, Daimler, BMW and Opel made the decision at a summit with leading politicians in Berlin. They have been under pressure since the diesel emissions scandal two years ago exposed how VW and – it is suspected – other manufacturers have been cheating the testing regime.

The pressure on carmakers further increased last week when a court in Stuttgart – one of the country’s pollution hotspots – upheld a plan to ban older diesel cars from the city.

But environmental campaigners said the carmakers had not gone far enough.

Areeba Hamid, a clean air campaigner for Greenpeace said they were “clutching at straws.”

“Independent research has shown that some of these diesel cars emit up to 18 times more nitrogen oxide than the legal limit, so reducing it by 30% is nowhere near enough.

“This means that people across cities will continue to be exposed to the dangerous health impacts of air pollution for much longer.”

She said if the car makers were serious about reducing their role in the air pollution crisis they should ditch diesel and invest in electric cars.

Volvo last month became the first carmaker to announce all its new cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

But other leading carmakers have yet to follow their lead. At the Berlin summit the car companies met government ministers and regional leaders and emerged with details of the plan to retrofit 5.3m cars to reduce emissions. The carmakers said they would cover the cost of the upgrades.

Ugo Taddei, a clean air lawyer for environmental group Client Earth, who have taken legal action in several German cities over illegal levels of air pollution from diesel traffic, said: “This is a pitiful attempt by a discredited car industry to get itself off the hook for creating an endemic problem. The solution proposed is far too little, far too late.”

Taddei said the retrofit would cut NOx pollution by a maximum of 30%. “That’s a drop in the ocean, considering that Euro 5 and Euro 6 diesel vehicles emit on average five to seven times more NOx than the legal limits.

“Retrofitting has just been deemed an inadequate answer to the air pollution crisis by a German court. It cannot form the backbone of the national response to the problem … national authorities must roll up their sleeves and truly solve the air pollution problem caused by diesel vehicles in the shortest time possible.”

Anger is growing in German cities over poor air quality with several municipalities considering bans on older diesel vehicles.

But with an election looming, politicians appear nervous about upsetting drivers of the 15m diesel vehicles or taking on the car industry, which provides about 800,000 jobs.

Environment minister Barbara Hendricks said on Wednesday: “We expect a new culture of responsibility from carmakers.” She said the software updates were just a first step in cutting emissions.

Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, said: “If manufacturers can fix car software to help reduce pollution, why haven’t they done this already? The German car makers’ announcement is little more than tinkering under the bonnet following the diesel-gate scandal they were largely responsible for.”

From left: Matthias Mueller, VW boss, Harald Krueger, CEO of BMW, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler and Matthias Wissmann, president of the German Automobile Industry Association (VdA) at Berlin Diesel Conference.
From left: Matthias Mueller, VW boss, Harald Krueger, CEO of BMW, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler and Matthias Wissmann, president of the German Automobile Industry Association at Berlin Diesel Conference. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty Images

The 5.3m cars to be retrofitted include 3.8m VW vehicles, 900,00 Daimler cars and 300,000 BMWs.

The car companies also offered an incentive for drivers who want to swap diesel cars for cleaner models. BMW said it would start an EU-wide renewal campaign for older vehicles that cannot be fixed with the software.

Air pollution now kills 3.3 million people prematurely worldwide every year with emissions from diesel engines among the worst culprits. A joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace showed hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren across England and Wales are being exposed to illegal air toxicity levels from diesel vehicles.

In the UK a class action against VW over the emissions scandal has attracted more than 35,000 claimants.


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How conniving carmakers caused the diesel air pollution crisis
Cheating, dodging rules and heavy lobbying by motor manufacturers fuelled the toxic air the UK is struggling with today

Damian Carrington, Environment editor

07, Apr, 2017 @10:32 AM

Article image
33m polluting cars still on EU roads after Dieselgate scandal
Analysis of EU commission figures found diesel cars clean up going at ‘snail’s pace’

Arthur Neslen

28, May, 2019 @10:01 PM

Article image
European commission guilty of 'negligence' over diesel defeat devices, says draft report
European parliament draft inquiry into dieselgate has found EC ignored evidence of emissions test cheating

Arthur Neslen

20, Dec, 2016 @9:31 AM

Article image
Diesel vehicles will disappear sooner than expected, says EU industry chief
European parliament backs tougher rules and €30,000 per vehicle fine for carmakers to prevent repeat of VW emissions scandal

Damian Carrington and agencies

04, Apr, 2017 @2:46 PM

Article image
German carmakers face EU anti-trust inquiry over emissions
BMW, Daimler, VW, Audi and Porsche suspected of colluding to limit clean technology

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

18, Sep, 2018 @1:22 PM

Article image
VW accused of using 'innovative' defences in high court battle
Lawyers bring biggest class action of its kind in Britain against carmaker over emissions scandal

Sandra Laville

02, Dec, 2019 @4:35 PM

Article image
Diesel cars emit 10 times more toxic pollution than trucks and buses, data shows
Stricter EU emissions testing for large vehicles means modern diesel cars produce 10 times more NOx per litre of fuel

Damian Carrington

06, Jan, 2017 @6:01 AM

Article image
BMW, Daimler and VW charged with collusion over emissions
EU gives car manufacturers 10 weeks to respond to findings from antitrust investigation

Arthur Neslen

05, Apr, 2019 @3:06 PM

Article image
German court delays ruling on city bans for heavily polluting diesel cars
Federal court to announce next week whether Stuttgart and Düsseldorf can use vehicle bans to try to improve air quality

Philip Oltermann and agencies

22, Feb, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Pollutionwatch: will carmakers follow VW and revamp vehicles?
Legal limits for nitrogen dioxide were set for 2010 but most UK towns and cities are still failing

Gary Fuller

30, Jul, 2020 @8:30 PM