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CO2 emissions test is a clear step forward say EU science advisors

The Scientific Advice Mechanism team has delivered its first report, concluding a new way of assessing vehicle exhaust gases will reduce discrepancies between the lab and the road

Henrik Wegener, chair of the Scientific Advice Mechanism
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A new test procedure for cars and vans should lower the discrepancies between actual emissions on the road and those measured in the laboratory, the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) says in its first opinion.

The seven-member science panel, which includes ex-head of CERN Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani, was asked by the Commission to analyse the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicles Test Procedure for CO2 emissions.

The tougher standard will be introduced in the EU next September, to replace the New European Drive Cycle procedure, which has been in use since 1970.

“[It] is a clear step forward in terms of reducing the gap between laboratory measurements and real-world CO2 emissions,” the SAM report concludes. The science advice group’s report was uploaded with little fanfare to its website late on Monday.

From next year, national authorities will no longer be allowed to hand out certificates to cars that have not been tested with the new method. Europe and Japan have already committed to introduce the procedure and India and Korea are expected to follow.

However, as the new test is not running yet, it is too early to assess its exact impact. SAM recommends a review every five years to ensure that today’s gap between test results and emissions in the real world is not growing.

The report is published just over a year after Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal, although no reference to the saga is made by SAM.

Last year, Europe’s leading car maker was found to be using software to achieve the lowest possible emissions during lab tests. Out on the road, its cars’ engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above allowed limits. The German car giant has agreed to pay billions of euros to settle legal claims with regulators and owners of diesel-powered vehicles.

While approving of the Worldwide Harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedure, SAM says it should be complemented by a number of measures that allow the monitoring of real driving emissions and of action to help build the trust of consumers in the regulatory system.

Lobby groups welcomed the call for more onerous testing. 

Greg Archer, clean vehicles director at Transport & Environment, said, “They are spot-on in their recommendations. Establishing a not to exceed limit for road tests to discourage manufacturers abusing flexibilities in the test procedures & optimising for the test requirements is an essential next step. It will end the abuse of lab tests and ensure future regulations deliver real fuel savings for drivers on the road and CO2 emissions cuts for the environment."

The same comments were echoed by Chris Carroll, project coordinator on sustainable transport at The European Consumer Organisation. "Consumers are demanding more realistic emissions and fuel consumption data, it’s now time the EU gets on with giving it to them,” he wrote in an email. 

SAM said that authorities should, “retain and reinforce deep in-house expertise and state-of-the-art laboratories” and all compliance data and details related to test procedures should be made public. It also notes that testing methods may need to be tweaked in the future for newer models of plug-in hybrids, electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.

For its report, SAM collected evidence from academic literature and its chair, Henrik Wegener, who in his regular job is vice-president and chief academic officer of the Technical University of Denmark, visited the vehicle emissions laboratory at the Commission's Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, in February.

The lab is currently under scrutiny by an investigative committee of the European Parliament, which is trying to find out if the Volkswagen scandal could have been prevented by EU authorities.

A workshop was organised in June at the Nova University of Lisbon and attended by some of the most-cited European researchers in the field. A wider meeting of non-governmental groups, industry and academia heads was held in Brussels in September.

Formed in October last year, SAM will tackle two main topics each year, with a report on cybersecurity is due before the end of 2016. The group may also suggest its own topic suggestions.

SAM sits within the Commission’s research directorate and is supported by a 25-person strong secretariat. It superseded the role of chief scientific advisor held by Anne Glover that was abolished in 2014 following a very public dispute with anti-GMO lobbyists.

Alongside Wegener, Heuer and Villani, the other SAM members are, Janusz Bujnicki, head of the laboratory of bioinformatics and protein engineering at Warsaw’s International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology; Pearl Dykstra, professor of sociology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam; Elvira Fortunato, professor in the materials science department of the Faculty of Science and Technology at NOVA University in Lisbon; and Julia Slingo, chief scientist with the UK’s Met Office.

The seven experts were chosen from a list of 162 candidates. Mandates last for two and a half years, renewable once.

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Related subjects: Climate change, CO2, COP21, SAM