If only everything in life was as reliable as a … oh.

In the first blog I contributed to ‘Sustainable Smart Cities’ I wrote about the known impacts of poor air quality – particularly in urban areas. In that blog it said:

A report ‘Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom’  (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2040416) states ‘Combustion emissions are a major contributor to degradation of air quality and pose a risk to human health. We evaluate and apply a multiscale air quality modeling system to assess the impact of combustion emissions on UK air quality. Epidemiological evidence is used to quantitatively relate PM2.5 exposure to risk of early death. We find that UK combustion emissions cause 13,000 premature deaths in the UK per year, while an additional 6000 deaths in the UK are caused by non-UK European Union (EU) combustion emissions.

In the EU, with a raft of legislation and Directives, there was frustration that nation states were failing to put in place the policies that would drive local air quality improvement. Local government would be nervous of introducing any policies that were considered ‘anti-business’ or ‘anti-car’ for fear of losing votes. National governments just ran scared of dictating uniform standards and policies. But there was hope. There was an increasing growth in electric vehicles, hydrogen technology, and compressed natural gas. Major hauliers have moved away from diesel and reaped the rewards. However, whilst there were tax incentives for motorists for lower emission vehicles there was always going to be an uptake of diesel and its growth in the UK has been in direct response to that.

We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxide (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

But, overall, the policy makers have been weak to press harder despite the fines from Brussels hanging over Member States for whom air quality improvements have yet to be realised.

The growth in diesel vehicles by number has probably masked the very fact that has been exposed this week – that it is in the interests of car manufacturers to ‘fiddle’ the system to ensure in tests their vehicles pass the emissions tests. But in reality, on the roads, they are performing knowhere near where they say they are and a dirty, choking country mile from where they need to be. Don’t think either that it’s just diesel. Petrol, whilst more refined, is not much better and the real challenge is to switch from petroleum based products altogether.

The revelation that the respected car manufacturer, Volkswagen, has been ‘fiddling’ has brought a backlash that meant the CEO walked. The company’s credentials for reliability smashed by the story breaking. They wont be alone, surely. In a report ‘Don’t Breathe Here: Tackling Air Pollution from Vehicles’ – T&E analyses the reasons for and solutions to air pollution caused by diesel machines and cars – the worst of which, an Audi, emitted 22 times the allowed EU limit. In fact, every major car manufacturer is selling diesel cars that fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road in Europe, according to data obtained by T&E.

As a consequence of this and emissions from diesel machines, much urban air in Europe is not fit to breathe. The high levels of particles, nitrogen oxides and unburned fuel create a cocktail of harmful pollution. The effects are half a million premature deaths each year; a quarter of a million hospital admissions; and 100 million lost working days cumulatively costing over €900 billion.

The regulators in whom we trust have been undone in the US and, who knows, in the EU too. So why is it that it we are surprised? The Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment aren’t. They have long been among those highlighting the fact that the real world experience of many car owners, even in terms of fuel consumption, did not come anywhere near to the official figures that resulted from emissions testing.  The question arises of why it takes underfunded NGOs to discover these problems, rather than the regulators themselves.

Now that the truth is out will politicians respond and toughen up? Will the outcry and outrage of the car-driving public demand politicians sort things out? Or will they, like they did with the banking industry, simply wait for the dust, particulates, NOx and ozone to settle and let the auto industry carry on the way it has?

Source: How Volkswagen got caught cheating emissions tests by a clean air NGO

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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