Press release: 18 September 2020

Dieselgate anniversary: lawyers demand facts as consumers still in dark over potential emissions manipulation

On the fifth anniversary of the Dieselgate scandal, lawyers at ClientEarth have demanded that national car regulators in six EU countries come clean over why millions of “dirty diesels” are still being allowed to pollute EU streets.

The environmental law charity has issued legal requests to national car regulators in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK to disclose information on the emission control systems and use of defeat devices in a selection of popular diesel car models.

The selected vehicles have been found to have real world emissions of at least five times and up to 20 times over the regulatory limits.

While the Dieselgate scandal triggered recalls and sanctions in the US, European authorities and car industries have come through largely unscathed.

There are still an estimated 50 million diesel vehicles on EU roads that emit nitrogen oxides several times above the legal limit. These vehicles are not limited to one manufacturer or a few models, but are present across the industry and with no way for consumers to know how harmful they are.

ClientEarth lawyer Irmina Kotiuk said: “Dieselgate should have put an end to the cosy stitch-up between manufacturers and national authorities and forced them to be fully transparent to regain consumers’ trust. But the public are still in the dark about the scale of emissions that have significant effects on their health.

“Consumers have a right to know whether their car meets legal emissions limits. When car-makers manipulate vehicle emissions, authorities should not block the public from checking the consequences for their health and their wallets. Protecting the health of millions of EU citizens should be the authorities’ number one priority.”

The requests challenge the lack of publicly available information within the approval system, which continues to be rigged in favour of the car industry instead of the health of EU citizens.

ClientEarth’s requests come following guidance issued by the European Commission to national car regulators, known as Type Approval Authorities (TAAs) that information about emission control systems and defeat devices can be considered confidential and therefore not disclosed to the public.

The environmental lawyers believe keeping this information about vehicle emissions confidential goes against EU and international transparency laws.

By keeping revelations on defeat devices secret and by preventing independent scrutiny of the activities of national authorities, ClientEarth’s lawyers argue the guidance props up a system that could allow for continued emissions cheating.

Consumers currently have no means of knowing if they are making smart financial and environmental investments. Vehicles advertised as being “clean” may have too high emissions to be allowed in low emissions zones – and consumers will be forced to replace or retrofit their vehicle, all at their own expense.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei added: “In the wake of Covid-19, national governments should incentivise the car industry to build back better by transitioning to cleaner vehicles instead of continuing to support polluting technology that does nothing to build a more resilient future.

“Air pollution is a top public health concern and people want to make smart decisions that help to clean up our air. But how can they, if the right information is intentionally kept hidden?”

The six TAAs have 60 days to respond to ClientEarth’s requests. Failure to disclose this information may lead to legal action.


Notes to editors

The request for access to information on defeat devices are available using the following links for GermanyItalyFranceSpainThe Netherlands and the UK.

Nitrogen oxides are harmful gas emitted mainly by diesel vehicles and are the main source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in more than 130 cities across the EUStudies have shown they have adverse effects on human health. Nitrogen dioxide is linked to higher rates of cancers, heart diseases, heart attacks and asthma attacks. It can also lead to low birth weight and stunted lung development in children. An estimate of 68,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2016 were attributable to exposure to NO2 pollution.

Defeat devices are any hardware, software or design component in a vehicle used to cheat on emissions tests – meaning vehicles emit far more pollutants (typically nitrogen oxides, including NO2) in standard road driving conditions than during the tests. These devices were at the heart of the Dieselgate scandal, which broke in 2015, and was found to relate to tens of millions of vehicles.

Type Approval Authorities (TAAs), are the authorities in EU countries that grant approval for vehicles to go to market.

Vehicles under scrutiny

ClientEarth is requesting information on the make and model of Euro 6 diesel vehicles from the Type Approval Authorities from the countries in the table below:

CountryGermanyItalyFranceSpainThe NetherlandsThe UK
Vehicle Euro 6BMW model 116D, engine 1496Fiat model 500X 2.0. MJ, engine type 55263088Renault Kadjar, engine 1149Volvo model XC60R, engine 1969Opel Astra CDTI, engine 1598Nissan Qashqai, engine 1197
Type Approval AuthorityKBA Kraftfahrt-BundesamtMinistero delle Infrastrutture e dei Trasporti , Dipartimento per i Trasporti Terrestri e per i Sistemi Informativi e Statistici , Direzione Generale della Motorizzazione e della Sicurezza del Trasporto TerrestreMinistère de l’Environnement, de l’Énergie et de la mer, chargée des relations internationales sur le climat – Direction Générale de l’Énergie et du ClimatMinisterio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad – Subdirección General de Calidad y Seguridad IndustrialRDW Vehicle Technology and Information CentreVehicle Certification Agency

Information on emissions from the diesel vehicles selected was obtained from the United Kingdom Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency market report of July 2019 “Vehicle Market Surveillance Unit: results of the 2018 programme” for the models from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and the UK. Emissions data for the Fiat model was taken from testing done by German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).

Prior legal action

In 2017, ClientEarth launched a legal action against the European Commission challenging the confidentiality clause in a new EU regulation, which had been introduced in the wake of the Dieselgate scandal.

The EU Commission Regulation in question required car manufacturers to explain to TAAs whether the functioning of the emission control system changes under different conditions and what effect any such variation has on emissions. However, the rules allowed this information to remain a secret between the manufacturer and the TAA.

ClientEarth called for the confidentiality clause to be annulled, and through the course of legal action, the Commission removed this requirement. But the Commission continues to leave a backdoor open for the authorities and car manufacturers to cheat the system by providing national TAAs with guidance on ways in which extended documentation about vehicles can be considered confidential.

In Germany, Volkswagen’s ex-CEO was recently ordered to face trial on charges of defrauding customers.

Authorities in Germany, Italy and Switzerland raided Fiat-Chrysler’s offices over claims some engines produced illegal levels of emissions.


About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.