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Diesel emissions the result of government failures of judgement

Portable pollution sensorBrussels, 26/9/2015. I do so loathe diesel cars. As a motorcycle rider, I have wondered for years why certain cars were unpleasant to follow in traffic. Maybe it’s to do with being an ex-asthmatic, but I often prefer to follow trucks and buses rather than modern diesel cars; strangely, these larger vehicles seem to pollute the air behind them less!

With the emergence of the VW/Audi group emissions testing scandal this week, I begin to understand why some modern cars appear to pollute more than older models. According to EU type-approval regulations, newer cars should pollute less and be cleaner for the atmosphere. In practice, older models from the 1990s or earlier often seem to have less objectionable exhaust emissions.

I now begin to understand the critical importance of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) to this story, and why diesel cars, which have been marketed by carmakers for years as cleaner and greener, may well in fact be worse for the environment than older models with supposedly less clean exhaust gases.

Here in Belgium, which for corporate-taxation reasons has been for many years diesel-car heaven, every year sees increasing numbers of air-pollution alerts, when pollutants such as NO2 or Ozone reach dangerously high levels. People are advised not to exercise outdoors, and in more severe instances not to go outdoors at all. It has not escaped many people’s attention that the highest levels of pollution appear to be in the dense traffic corridors around the major cities.

Diesel-car emissions story begins to emerge

The emissions-cheating story began this week with Tuesday’s (22nd September) news story from the US about VW/Audi group’s circumvention of US emissions regulations. Appalling in itself. No less appalling is the fact that such devious behaviour has been going on for years in the industry, as apparently was widely known in both the US and Europe. Also that it took an announcement from a publicity-savvy US NGO to finally bring the issue to public attention.

Since that initial news story, further details have emerged of a saga that began with a focus on VW in California, and now extends to questions about diesel-engined cars across Europe as well as the US. So much so that the UK’s Department of Transport has undertaken to carry out a series of random tests on diesel cars in the UK.

While European Parliament’s Environment Committee votes

In a hugely improbable coincidence, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee was scheduled to vote the following day, 23rd September, on strengthening Europe’s vehicle-pollution regulations. A majority of the committee was already minded to support a Green Party amendment that testing should be carried out under actual driving conditions.

Prior to the vote, Green environment spokesperson Bas Eickhout said, “We cannot put the short-term profits of the car industry ahead of public health and the impact air pollution has on our health systems and national budgets. Ultimately, it is up to national authorities to ensure car manufacturers do not cheat. Both finally have to start doing their jobs.”

Unsurprisingly, given the huge coverage of the VW/Audi emissions story, the committee delivered a thumping majority in support of the Green Party amendment. This was despite sustained lobbying by European governments and car manufacturers to promote a weaker testing alternative that was more easily influenced by national governments.

Success in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee still has to be carried through to the plenary vote however. Expect to see continuing attempts to sideline the Environment Committee’s recommendations before Parliament as a whole decides.

European governments – what’s their interest?

One aspect of the story still mystifies, though. I can understand car manufacturers’ attempts to water down strong emissions-testing regulations. Their behaviour, objectionable enough in its lack of concern for the environment, is at least explainable in terms of concern about increased manufacturing costs.

But why should EU governments be interested in doing the same? You would think that they understand the health-cost implications of rising sensitivity to air pollution and increasing rates of cancer among the populace. There is little scientifically-accepted proof of a connection yet, but only a flat-earther would deny that air pollution has a negative effect on human health.

So why would European governments try to influence the Parliamentary vote? Are they so completely in the hands of the vehicle industry? It is a powerful lobby; VW/Audi apparently has 43 lobbyists active in Europe alone (Channel 4 News UK). But there may be other motives at work.

Diesel aids the economy’s bottom line

Ever since the first fuel-price shock from the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, European governments have been sensitive to the sheer cost of vehicle fuel for national economies. Consumption of (mostly) petrol and diesel represents a huge and generally rising cost to an economy.

But with the development of the “common-rail” diesel engine (from an EU research project, NOFISDI, in 1997), diesel suddenly became much more economically efficient even for smaller vehicles. Mercedes Benz and Alfa Romeo launched common-rail diesels that same year, and the industry began, with the support of EU governments and the European Commission, to promote diesel-power to the general public as offering better fuel economy. Sales of diesel-powered cars rose steadily.

In countries where corporate taxation gave favourable treatment to diesel, provided vehicles were driven more than, say, 15,000 Km a year, diesel-car sales took off. In Belgium, they have retained their majority market share ever since; indeed, Belgian car dealers will warn you of the difficulty of selling a secondhand car on the market if it is petrol-powered.

Greater fuel economy means reduced costs for the buyer. But also, at the macro level, for the economy as a whole. Having more fuel-efficient vehicles on the roads reduces the national fuel bill, a consequence that must figure in the minds of the nation’s accountants.

Which perhaps goes some way to explaining the interest of governments in maintaining the market share presently held by diesel-powered vehicles. Choosing diesel helps the economy’s bottom line. Given the power of the treasury in this day and age, it may be that national governments are being influenced more by short-term economic arguments from the treasury than the longer-term risks of a rising bill for public health.

Seems the BBC thinks diesel is wonderful …

This factor may explain the decision by the BBC to broadcast a rather strange programme on its BBC Four digital channel on Wednesday 23rd September, lavishing praise on diesel power; on the same day that the VW/Audi emissions story was developing. We heard that the diesel engine had transformed transport around the world, and that Rudolf Diesel was one of the greatest inventors ever (British TV programmes are not usually known for waxing lyrical about German inventors).

The implication was, clearly, that without the diesel engine we would be back in the dark ages. Even allowing for the rather comic simplification of some of the ideas, I was surprised by the programme, until I saw the closing credits and the names of the lead sponsors rolled down the screen, including, at the top of the list, one Audi AG.

I would not have expected the BBC, even though not as strict as it once was about commercial influence, to be so vulnerable to an industry lobby, especially when one of the major stories of the day was diesel-emissions cheating from that industry. But if Her Majesty’s government, in the form of the treasury, waved a big stick as well, then that could explain the timing of the broadcast. If so, it was at best rather clumsy propaganda.

… but the consequences are not healthy

But while governments, and the BBC perhaps, may love diesel, I do not. I have not forgotten the advice Greenpeace gave to me back in the 1990s when I was considering a company car. Greenpeace said then that while diesel was the better choice for open-road driving because it used less fuel and therefore conserved planetary resources, diesel-powered cars should be banned from cities because of their pollution (they also reminded me that, in their opinion, it was better to buy a bicycle!).

Ironic then to hear, some 20 years later, that the mayors of Berlin and Paris are now recommending that private diesel cars be banned from their cities. And that London’s mayor Boris Johnson may be considering the same recommendation!

My own loathing of diesels is for personal reasons of course; I know the effects of these engines, or the way they have been developed for road use today, on my health. But I have also worked on EU research projects investigating the public-health consequences of air pollution, and been concerned that such deserving research failed to gain the renewed budgets that other projects, far less worthy in their ambition, seemed to win without problem.

I therefore believe that there is an unhealthy interest at government level in maintaining diesel fuel as the major mover (sic) of transport today. I feel that this interest is for reasons that are mistaken in their assumptions, short-termist in their thinking, and fundamentally anathema to human health.

Thanks to a lack of transparency and even deviousness over many years from governments on this subject, I now tend to the opinion that neither the motor industry nor government can be trusted to deliver a sound long-term view on diesel emissions, or indeed on vehicle emissions in general.

I therefore have no choice but to join the total-rejection camp. It’s either death to, or death due to, diesels.

Latest story updates at: http://www.shoeman.eu/diesel-car-emissions-the-result-of-government-failures-of-judgement/

© Philip Hunt, 2015.