Back to the future in European emissions standards? Lessons from the watering down of Euro 7 in a policy-making perspective

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Brussels (2024)


Rachele Cavara (corresponding author, would like to be considered for the Young Author Prize),
Francesco Zirpoli,

The Euro 7 emissions standard provisionally adopted in December 2023 has been accused of falling short of expectations of the European Green Deal and EU's ‘carbon-neutral’ and ‘zero-pollution’ objectives. Accuses claim that the EU aligned itself with the recommendations of the car industry in relation to passenger cars pollution instead of adequately tackling urgent challenges in air quality and the health of European constituents. This position is shared by environmental NGOs (T&E, 2023), consumers’ organizations (BEUC, 2022), public administrations (Eurocities & Polis, 2023), and surprisingly also by some automotive industry representatives (CLEPA & CECRA, 2023; AECC, 2023). As a matter of fact, the Regulation keeps nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3), particulate matter (PM) - the main car tailpipe emissions - and particulate number (PN10) at the same level as Euro 6 (VoxEurop, 2023), calling, according to some, to rename it to Euro 6f to more appropriately reflect the emission changes that this regulation delivers (BEUC, EPHA, ERS, T&E, 2023).

The main evidence supporting this argument is Euro 7’s watering down throughout its legislative iter, from the initial ambition of the Commission to the final compromise text. Analyses demonstrate the weakening of Euro 7 by within-case comparison, that is by tracking the relaxation of emissions values at every new step of the Euro 7 procedure, and by comparing the final values with the Euro 6 as a baseline (ICCT, 2023; VoxEurop, 2023). Analyses do not normally compare Euro 7’s procedural history with past standards’ procedural history before declaring that the new standard constitutes an outstanding case of business intervention in public policy-making. That is, they do not investigate if the watering down lives as an outlier in the realm of emissions regulations for passenger cars (objective view of Euro 7 as a scandal) or as business-as-usual (social-constructivist view of Euro 7 as a scandal).

Understanding this is of utmost importance in a time when the ability of policy-making systems to manage sustainable transitions is put under the spotlight all over the world. Some even advance the need for a massive and rapid retooling of our economy and society to really address paradigmatic changes in production systems and products (Adler, 2022; Knudsen & Moon, 2017). This is even more relevant in a highly regulated sector such as the automotive industry, where emissions regulations have historically been the result of business and government interactions and (dis)alignment of interests (Ballor, 2023; Näsman, 2021; Pardi, 2021; Pardi, 2022) and which is currently undergoing its biggest transformation since when the internal combustion engine became the dominant design about 100 years ago. So, we ask: How have the process and practices of setting emissions standards evolved over time?

We address the research question by comparing the legislative development of European emissions Regulations superseding the original directive on emission limits 70/220/EEC (Euro 1 - Euro 7). We collect data from publicly available sources such as the Legislative Observatory and Eur-Lex which provide information about the EU’s legislative activities (both procedures and outcomes).

We begin by tracking emissions Regulations' legislative procedures, meaning we present the official steps that led to the adoption of Euro X Regulations. The Euro 7 legislative procedure, for instance, entailed a first Proposal by the Commission in November 2022, an opinion by the European and Economic and Social Committee in April 2023, the issuance of the General Approach by the Council in September 2023, the presentation of amendments by the Parliament’s Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in October 2023, the adoption of the Parliament’s compromise text in November 2023, and a trilogue provisional agreement in December 2023. The article will then analyze the evolution of emissions limits for each of the Regulations' legislative steps with a focus on pre-Euro 7 standards and will comment on whether and how values changed in them (if they decreased or increased and how much) and where they changed (at the level of the Commission, Parliament, Council, or interinstitutional level agreements) before the final Regulation text was adopted. Finally, the paper draws conclusions on the objective or socially-constructed nature of the Euro 7’s watering down as outstanding compared to that of past emissions Regulations and will comment on the suitability of European policy-making in the auto industry to manage emissions reduction initiatives in different historical contexts.


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