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.
A million tonnes a year of hidden pollution
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:
[quote]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.[/quote]
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.
VW’s cheating takes human toll
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.
Loopholes big enough to drive a truck through
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.”
Vehicle emissions double
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.
Revving up solutions
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.
Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.
10 thoughts on “Suzuki: Volkswagen cheated climate, people’s health”
David Suzuki does a nice job here with both recognizing the disgusting corporate cheat which happened at VW, but also our double standards when it comes to the vehicles we allow on our roads, but he leaves me puzzled about the greenhouse effect of NOx emissions. The truck and SUV owners now looking smugly at VW diesel owners probably don’t know that their vehicles didn’t have to pass the same stringent standards for safety and pollution as ‘passenger vehicles’. Trucks and SUVs, perfectly legally, use way more fuel, burn it dirtier, and do not have to comply with the same safety standards as passenger cars, and in accidents cause up to 20x more deaths than passenger vehicles. There is no doubt that NOx, the emissions gas which VW tried to hide from regulators causes human health problems in urban settings. But Dr Suzuki also calls it “a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide”, which seems a controversial statement when reading the Wikipedia page about it. “NOx emissions also causes global cooling through the formation of OH groups that destroy methane molecules, countering the effect of greenhouse gases” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NOx . Can you explain, Dr Suzuki, if only one of those statements is true, or if both are true, and why?
The problem here is that Suzuki hasn’t a clue how NOx reacts in sunlight with oxygen to form photochemical smog. Particulates aren’t formed, smog is, as anyone with a bit of brainpower could easily find out by googling:
As a kid, I grew up with pix of Los Angeles in the 1950s where people literally choked on this smog from vehicle emissions. Why was California the first place to demand pollution controls on cars? Simple, LA was unlivable.
This is the problem I have with Suzuki, getting it half right, just like Neil Young taking a helicopter ride around the tarsands and then making scientifically preposterous statements.
I want clean air and environment, but I’m not happy with nitwits getting the basics wrong as it ruins the validity of the eco-movement.
As for the purely brain dead, i see you were visited by a dunderhead of a Conservative, William H something or other above and his no doubt long-suffering wife or sister. Whenever you see Block Capitals and exclamation marks, you can be sure that from Grade 7 on, no attention was ever paid in school. Content to lionize the chief demons of the know-nothing class intent on digging Canada up for profit, their putrid utterings only serve to show what happens when you don’t pay attention in school, then become belligerent in later life based on nothing substantive whatsoever.
This story has other dimensions than the simple one of cheating. That was a software design installed to tell the engine when fuel emission tests were being conducted.
Once the software recognised a testing event a small amount of uric acid would be added to the fuel and presto no nitrous oxide pollution.
Because US engine builders are technological laggards, the US government protects them from European competition by focusing on this emission when it is Carbon that is the green house culprit.
I was advised by an insider from the German auto industry that his BMW also has uric acid permanently engaged. He said that after 100,000 K he still did not require a reservoir top up.
Don’t overlook who is trying to start legal actions against Volkswagen. This drama looks a little like US firms claiming victimhood and making claims against Canada using the appropriate section of NAFTA.
I totally agree that the US govt( and the American car industry lobbyists that support them) are as giddy as the first a lawyer at a bus accident. If the US govt can use this for the advantage of the US car industry…they’ll do it in a heartbeat.
However, there are Toyotas built in Texas, Volkswagens built in Tennessee, etc. so how deep will they really want to go with sanctions against “foreign” car manfacturers when those same cars are being assembled in the US? My lobbyist will fight your lobbyist ……..Should be interesting to watch this play out.
That being said. .if we look at the extent of the “cheating” and carbon pollution…its worse than BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill( and THAT was an accident due to sloppy maintenance in the Gulf of Mexico…billions in fines)
Potentially 11 million cars spewing forth 40 times more pollution than was legal…. Especially when one considers that Volkswagen was promoting their diesel engine as a “cleaner” alternative to gas(it burns less fuel per mile) Fraud, fraud and more fraud.
And let us not be too smug here in North America. I’m sure if VW was doing this it may have occured to other car companies to possibly “tweak” their test results somehow? I expect a settlement in the billions, no culpability admitted, possibly some jail time in a “club fed” for some unlucky sap who actually takes the fall and not much else….VW will survive….new scams will come to light.
The only “winners” will be the legions of lawyers salivating at the hundreds of millions of dollars in “billable hours” to eventually be deposited in their endlessly swelling bank accounts…..
One can also hope and dream that possibly, just maybe, one of the large car manufacturers will decide that perhaps electric cars arent such a bad idea after all……..
I’m also curious,
When the car resevoir needs to be “topped up” with uric acid does the mechanic pee in the engine?
Im on the fence here. I own a small toyota truck for work ( tools, parts,etc.) and pleasure( hiking, camping, etc).
The comments about huge 4wd SUV’s jockeying around the city for parking stalls and never seeing so much as a gravel road let alone a snowy Canadian winter is valid but its a sideshow to what VW has done.
VW has deliberately installed software that would change their deisel engine parameters when a vehicle was connected to a pollution measuring device. This is criminal fraud. And when one considers it involves 11 MILLION diesel cars and trucks…..massive criminal fraud.
Lets not forget VW’s previous ads for their deisel cars,” they burn less fuel than gas and are friendlier to the environment…
Well, things are about to get nasty. The US has passed new corperate laws which hold the president and or director of a company criminally responsible……..
No more slaps on the wrist and multi billion dollar fines punishing the shareholders(who were completely innocent) while the perpetrators get away with a “resignation” and a huge severance package.
Im sure the president to Volkswagen is having a few sleepless nights these days.
Im also sure that if Volkswagen was doing this…….a few other car manufacturors may be complicit.
Time for the electric car?
Who cares about Volkswagen ?!?! IT’S TIME TO GET RID OF SUZUKI ! Canada needs a NEW Suzuki that DOES NOT make a mockery of the electoral system. We need a NEW Suzuki that DOES NOT interfere in illegal partisan political activities. We need a NEW Suzuki that DOES NOT flout taxation laws. We need a NEW Suzuki that cares more than the human race, which he has referred to as maggots. http://wp.me/p1jq40-Mn http://wp.me/p1jq40-mL We need to get rid of the current Suzuki, forever !
One media outlet has recently organized a PETITION against Suzuki, demanding that Canada Revenue Agency AUDIT this organization’s non-profit charity tax-exempt status, given its excessive interference in partisan politics. GET RID OF SUZUKI BY SIGNING THE PETITION HERE … http://wp.me/p1jq40-8SQ SUZUKI MUST SUFFER THE SCRUTINY OF THE MEDIA AND THE SPOTLIGHT OF CANADA REVENUE AGENCY. For the whole truth about SUZUKI, please go to the following links … http://wp.me/P1jq40-21m http://wp.me/p1jq40-66Q http://wp.me/P1jq40-4aU
Petition Against David Suzuki For Flouting Taxations Laws –
While I might disagree with Mr. Suzuki on his solutions offered pertaining to his article here, and I must say I firmly do, I have much respect for his efforts in other areas. I find it my responsibility to defend him against what you have brought forth.
You should be ashamed of your affiliation to Erza Lavant. You are obviously followers and therefore simply trying to move an agenda forward that is best ignored.
Don F. I agree.
While I may disagree with Mr Suzuki at times,
I think that the childish, unprofessional, vitriol spewed forth by followers of Ezra Levant should be printed on a piece of recycled paper and then placed where it belongs……at the bottom of a bird cage…..
I fail to see Mr. Suzuki’s thought process or understand his reasoning as presented.
V.W. has been found guilty of using software to cheat emissions tests, something far removed from the control or capabilities vehicle purchasers. A person wanting to be responsible to the environment and making that a priority in his buying decision has been totally duped and mislead by the largest manufacturer in the world.
As a solution Mr Suzuki then suggests that that buyer be made responsible and pay a tax upon purchasing fuel as a way to curb the impact. As a person who cares deeply about the environment but for my living must drive, I am insulted.
If you take all of this serious Mr. Suzuki then you must agree what you suggest is not what is required to remedy these latest findings. To do that requires that we ban the sale of those vehicles that exist here and also the sales of them worldwide in the future. What we will probably see though will be inaction of any kind followed by the innocent paying more, in other words more of the same that accomplishes little.
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