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The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal Is a Sorry Sign of the Times

09/30/2015 05:35 EDT | Updated 09/30/2016 05:12 EDT
Rob Stothard via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: The logo of German manufacturer Volkswagen is seen outside a dealership in Battersea on September 25, 2015 in London, England. The Department for Transport's Vehicle Certification Agency, the UK's national approval authority for new road vehicles, has announced that it will re-run laboratory tests on engines and compare the results with emissions from on-the-road tests in the wake of the VW test-rigging scandal. The German car manufacturer has admitted selling vehicles in the US with diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested for emission, changing the vehicles performance accordingly in order to improve results. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Volkswagen was caught cheating on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions tests by installing "defeat devices," which allowed its diesel vehicles to pass nitrogen oxide emissions checks but spew up to 40 times allowable pollutants once they were completed. The scandal has resulted in plummeting share prices, CEO Martin Winterkorn's resignation and up to $18 billion in fines, as well as recalls, stop-sale orders, impending lawsuits and possible criminal charges.

Beyond the betrayal and legal and financial issues, the effect on global pollution is massive. Volkswagen is the world's largest automaker by sales, and as many as 11 million of its diesel vehicles are implicated. According to the Guardian, "The rigging of emissions tests may have added nearly a million tonnes of air pollution by VW cars annually -- roughly the same as the UK's combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture."

Nitrogen oxide pollution creates particulate matter that causes respiratory problems and is linked to millions of premature deaths every year worldwide. It's also a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide and so contributes to global warming.

The Volkswagen debacle is bad enough in itself, but it also raises questions about automaker practices, pollution, emissions standards and testing and the implications of our rampant car culture. Volkswagen cheated on regulations designed to protect human health and the environment, and the consequences are increased rates of asthma, lung disease, cancer and death. But it's not just diesel cars and it's not just vehicles from one company. Cars kill and harm millions of people every year, with accidents, pollution, climate change and other environmental damage. And car-makers have in the past resisted safety improvements such as seatbelts and air bags.

Illegally rigging vehicles to pass emissions tests hurts everyone, but legal loopholes create similar problems. Just look at SUVs. I did a quick count of the many passing my office during the afternoon, and almost all contained a single driver -- no passengers or even pets! Under emissions laws in Canada, the U.S., Japan and elsewhere, SUVs are classified as "light-duty trucks" and are subject to less strict emissions standards than cars. Yet, most people treat them the same as cars.

This creates incentives for manufacturers to produce more heavy vehicles or even to design cars as trucks, such as Chrysler's PT Cruiser. According to the Economist, "As vehicles above 3.8 tonnes were long exempted from the American regulation, manufacturers started producing enormous vehicles such as the Hummer to avoid any fuel-economy rules."

Even with fuel-efficiency improvements, vehicle emissions have more than doubled since 1970 and will increase as demand rises in countries like China, India and Brazil, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Studies show that because fuel efficiency makes it less expensive to drive, people drive more. Clearly, we need better solutions.

It's easy to say it starts with individuals. We can all find ways to reduce private automobile use. But individuals aren't entirely to blame for our fossil-fuelled lifestyles. Incentives, regulations, policies and infrastructure are needed to create the necessary shift away from reliance on wasteful, inefficient transportation and fuel options.

We've seen many positive developments in recent years. In my hometown, Vancouver, and many other cities, car-sharing programs and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure are expanding rapidly. Hybrid and electric vehicle technologies are making great inroads. Recognition of the need for efficient public transit is also spreading around the world. And fuel taxes and carbon pricing have been proven effective at reducing reliance on private automobiles.

Taxing fossil fuel consumption may be more efficient than emissions standards because, as the Economist points out, fuel taxes encourage people, especially those who drive a lot, to buy more efficient cars and to drive less. And, "A fuel tax does not rely on dubious testing nor does it create distortive loopholes." Revenue from taxes can be invested in cleaner transportation alternatives or, as with B.C.'s carbon tax, used to reduce income taxes or provide rebates to people with lower incomes.

It's outrageous that a car manufacturer like Volkswagen would stoop to devious practices to get around laws designed to benefit all people, but in our car-driven culture, it's not entirely surprising -- just another signal that it's time to rethink the way we move ourselves around.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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