European car manufacturers have claimed that current limits on the Dieselgate pollutant NO2 are “perhaps overly stringent” in response to an EU consultation on air quality laws.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association, which lobbies for major car builders including Volkswagen, wrote that the limits were being breached because they were too tight.

In a written response to an ongoing audit of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives, the organisation wrote:

“[The current rules] are very comprehensive in that the main issues and pollutants are adequately covered with targets that, in some cases like NO2, are perhaps overly stringent leading to the current situation of non-compliance.”

Clean air campaigners have blasted the comments.

Dorothee Saar, an air quality expert at Environmental Action Germany (DUH), which has been a key player in the enforcement of driving bans for highly polluting diesel cars, said the comments fit a pattern for an industry that is becoming increasingly desperate.

Saar compared the sector to the tobacco industry for challenging scientific consensus on the damage caused by NO2 pollution. She said:

“Our lungs are made for clean air, not for tobacco or diesel exhaust. We cannot stop breathing. The car industry must stop cheating.”

NO2, or nitrogen dioxide, is a harmful air pollutant that is linked to a host of health conditions including asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.

VW, Daimler and Ford are amongst the Members of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA)

The 2015 Dieselgate scandal broke when it was revealed Volkwagen used illegal software to ‘cheat’ emissions tests.

According to experts at the European Environment Agency more than 75,000 lives end prematurely each year in Europe because of NO2 pollution alone.

The car manufacturers’ comment was made in a response to a public consultation on the current effectiveness of EU protections for outdoor air quality. The European Commission’s so-called ‘Fitness Check’ process was launched in 2017 and is expected to take until later this year before recommending whether clean air laws need to be re-written.

Health and environmental groups have argued that the current laws are helping to improve air quality in Europe.

On Tuesday a stakeholder meeting in Brussels gathered national and local representatives, industry lobbyists, academics and scientists and health and environmental groups to reflect on the audit’s interim findings.

Margherita Tolotto, who attended the meeting as the European Environmental Bureau’s Clean Air Policy Officer told META that there was a good atmosphere in the room and the views expressed were mostly constructive, supporting efforts to improve air quality. She said she hoped the process would “continue in this positive spirit, where the voice of health and environment campaigners is heard and valued.”

But Tolotto also stressed the importance of enforcing the current laws and criticised the idea they should be weakened:

“Important EU limits that are there to protect our health are being broken in 130 cities in Europe. Urgent action is required to ensure our right to breathe clean air.”

A report published by the consultants leading the review has praised civil society groups for using national courts to challenge governments for inaction on air quality. They called the work of groups like ClientEarth “an eloquent proof” of the added value of EU air quality laws.

The same report also included new figures for the economic value of health impacts associated with exceedances, which were estimated at approximately €8.4 to €39 billion per year.

When contacted by META, the industry group ACEA said their members were: “bringing to the market a wide range of cleaner diesel, petrol and alternative powertrain vehicles which will help address ambient air quality concerns.”

They said that EU ambient air quality laws are “very comprehensive, with the key issues and pollutants being adequately covered” but said that “there clearly is an issue with non-compliance, for example when it comes to NO2″ and suggested that “more appropriate locations of the measurement devices” could help to improve compliance.

Tolotto said: “Auto manufacturers seem to just always want to move the goalposts. Either the limits are too strict or air pollution monitors are in the wrong locations.  We would welcome a proactive attitude to help transform mobility and a desire to make amends for the serious wrongdoing that has occured.