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ClientEarth Communications

22nd March 2023

Air pollution

We’re sending legal complaints to three governments on excessively polluting vehicles

We and other NGO partners have sent legal complaints to the UK, French and German governments for failing to tackle excessive pollution from diesel vehicles. The evidence suggests that there are still millions of excessively polluting vehicles on our roads, but governments in the UK and across the EU have failed to take action. They need to hold auto manufacturers to account once and for all to deliver the solutions needed to protect people’s health.

What’s Dieselgate and what happened since the scandal?

The Dieselgate scandal broke in 2015, revealing that millions of Volkswagen diesel vehicles were fitted with a specific form of ‘defeat device’.

Defeat devices affect the operation of an engine's emission control system – by switching it off or reducing its effectiveness when outside of testing conditions. This means that in the real world, vehicles with defeat devices can emit levels of pollution well over regulatory limits. This is bad news for people’s health and consumers who bought these vehicles.

Since then, official testing programmes have shown that hundreds more vehicle models across almost all major auto manufacturers emit extremely high levels of pollution in real world conditions.

The top European Court has issued a suite of rulings which make it clear that the use of defeat devices is illegal, subject to very limited exceptions.

Despite this, little has been done by governments in the EU and UK to fix the full extent of the problem brought to light by Dieselgate and in many cases auto manufacturers have not been sanctioned or held to account to deliver effective solutions.

Instead, individual consumers have been left to fight for financial compensation through the courts, and these excessively polluting vehicles remain on our roads.

By comparison, in the US, Volkswagen was forced to buy-back vehicles or offer effective emissions fixes. It also paid almost US$3 billion into a mitigation trust fund to help US states implement action to reduce pollution from road transport.

What’s the impact on health?

Air pollution has a devastating impact on people’s health and quality of life – it also cuts lives short.

It is linked to heart attacks and strokes, can stunt lung growth in children, worsens breathing conditions and can increase the risk of hospitalisation or worse. It also causes cancer and increasing evidence suggests links to other conditions such as dementia.

Road transport, especially diesel vehicles, is one of the key sources of toxic air in many towns and cities across Europe.

Diesel vehicles were linked to 35,400 premature deaths in Europe in 2015, when the Dieselgate scandal first broke.

What are our complaints about?

A new report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) reveals that the epidemic of defeat devices is far from over.

Their analysis of existing government testing suggests that over 200 vehicle models across almost all major manufacturer groups have reported excess emissions that are so high as to indicate the likely presence of an illegal defeat device. These models represent an estimated 19 million vehicles across the EU and UK.

Given the scale of the problem, the impact on people’s health and the lack of action by governments and auto manufacturers, we’ve decided to act – alongside France Nature Environnement and CLCV (Consommation, Logement, Cadre de Vie) in France and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) in Germany.

In our complaints, we’re asking national governments to act on this evidence and ensure that the industry as a whole acts to clean up the mess that they’ve caused.

Our lawyer Katie Nield said: “Over seven years after the first Dieselgate scandal, it’s astounding to see that so little has changed. We’re sending legal complaints to three national governments to demand that the dirty legacy of Dieselgate is addressed once and for all. This was a betrayal of consumer and public trust and authorities cannot continue to let auto manufacturers off the hook.”

What should governments and auto manufacturers do?

The law requires national authorities to actively investigate the issue and force manufacturers to take corrective action where the use of illegal defeat devices is found.

In practice, this means issuing vehicle recalls and retrofits to finally rid cars and vans of defeat devices. The rules are clear that vehicle owners should not be left to pay for the costs of any recalls.

Katie said: “During an unprecedented cost of living crisis, it is more important than ever that governments ensure that auto manufacturers foot the bill to clean up the excessively polluting vehicles they sold to people.”

On top of that, given the ongoing legacy of Dieselgate, we think it’s only right that auto manufacturers pay into a Dieselgate Clean Up Fund that would be used by national governments to reduce pollution from road transport. The money could be used to fund:

  • Help and support schemes for people and businesses, especially people on low-incomes and small businesses, to move on to cleaner forms of transport
  • Investment in public transport networks
  • Retrofitting programmes for older diesel buses and other heavy-duty vehicles to upgrade them to the highest emissions standards.

This document contains some more information about what we think governments should be doing to address the legacy of Dieselgate.

If authorities do not act swiftly to comply with their legal obligations on this issue, we and our NGO partners could begin formal legal proceedings in front of national courts.