The European Parliament on Thursday postponed a vote on new car pollution limits that could have killed a compromise agreed by EU members, as politicians argue over whether to seek tougher limits despite the delays that would entail.
With strong political momentum for stricter emission limits after the Volkswagen scandal, the assembly had been due to vote next week on a parliamentary proposal to reject a compromise agreed by representatives of the 28 European Union nations in October.
The vote pits lawmakers, who side with automakers pushing for the compromise proposal to be adopted now, against environmentalists seeking tougher rules.
The diluted deal would allow cars to carry on emitting more than twice official limits on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, blamed for premature death and respiratory diseases.
It was overwhelmingly rejected by the assembly's environment committee last month, but members of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and of the Socialists and Democrats on Thursday supported pushing back a plenary vote until next month.
The EPP, the biggest political group, argued that rejecting the draft law would delay changes to old limits while a new proposal is thrashed out and the automotive industry would lack certainty to make business adjustments and invest in cleaner technology.
Politicians said they want the time to come up with an alternative proposal for future legislation on emissions.
"We are negotiating informally with the Commission and we want something substantial in our hands at the end of the day if we vote against the objection," said German Socialist Matthias Groote.
Green politicians criticised the delay, calling it a ploy to derail efforts to toughen up rules, which were watered-down last year after many of the 28 member states demanded leeway to protect their car industries.
"The clear intention ... is to prevent this fundamentally-flawed driving emissions test procedure from being rejected," said Rebecca Harms, co-head of the Green group. "This may be in the interest of some laggards in the car industry but it is clearly not in the interest of Europe's citizens."
Revelations by Volkswagen in September that it had installed software in diesel vehicles to deceive U.S. regulators created a political firestorm in Europe where half of vehicles are diesel.
The cloud over the industry darkened on Thursday as sites of French carmaker Renault were inspected by investigators looking into its emissions technology, news that wiped billions off its market value.
The current EU proposal aims to close the gap between vehicles emissions tests and real road conditions from 2017 to curb toxic discharges that have surged to more than seven times their European limits. After 2020, it would still allow a 50 percent overshoot above the legal ceiling for nitrogen oxide readings of 80 milligrams/kilometer.
If parliament rejects the proposal, it could mean a delay of around two years while the EU executive drafts a new one.
The full EU assembly, which can take or leave the draft law by national governments, is now expected to vote in the first week of February.
"Nobody wants to slow down the whole process," Dutch Liberal politician Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy said. "On the other hand ... if we allow cars to emit so much more than legally already in the law, we don't give members states the instruments they need to clean up air in cities."