Air Quality Remains Poor – But the Blame has Shifted to the Car Manufacturers

Maybe, maybe the owners of VW, Audi, Seat and other cars will put enough political pressure on their governments that this will be sustained because of self-interest in the resale value of their cars rather than the condition of their lungs. Either way, this may just have been the best thing for air quality.

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Air quality in cities has been increasingly poor for years. Sustainable cities need great air quality. As regulation tightened on industrial emissions from factories, construction and combustion the predominant source of particulate matter, sulphur, NOx and ozone shifted to combustion engines in vehicles.

Earlier this year I blogged ‘At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution’. The blame, at that time, was squarely on the British Government for failing to deliver on the legislation originating from Brussels.

Two years ago I suggested (in light of the Government’s electric car strategy) ‘There is good news in it – especially the announcement of £500m to be made available over the next parliament to support electric cars. However, there are clear problems with this strategy so Labour has an opportunity to set out its own, more radical, agenda. With the Labour Group in conference in Brighton – heartland of the Green Party, I wonder whether Corbyn will be willing to make some bold commitments – not least because last week we saw the blame shift from the Government to the manufacturers. It’s akin to blaming the bankers for providing the cash to everyone who wanted to borrow. If you want to buy a car, buy one – you’d think you were safe in the knowledge there are people monitoring the performance of cars in the same way there are watchdogs guarding the banks.

Today, in conference, Labour committed to getting the taxes owed by Starbucks, Google and others. Maybe tomorrow they’ll commit to ensuring multi-national car manufacturers will be brought to book for not just failing, downright deceptively avoiding, standards.

Government will be quick to confuse the issues of legislation, choice and deception. Government will suggest the cause of the issue is entirely down to the poor performance of new vehicles coming on to the market, a la VW. There isn’t many places the car manufacturers can go other than to fall on their catalytic convertors but the hiding place for national and local government wont be long lived.

If government’s don’t tighten up their regulation of the automakers and air quality there is only one loser – us. If government’s do respond we can see better vehicle technology deployed, an accelerated shift towards electric, gas and hydrogen engines and, as a result, cleaner air.

Maybe, maybe the owners of VW, Audi, Seat and other cars will put enough political pressure on their governments that this will be sustained because of self-interest in the resale value of their cars rather than the condition of their lungs. Either way, this may just have been the best thing for air quality.

Read also: http://www.citiesofthefuture.eu/volkswagen-cheating-an-opportunity-for-cities/

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