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The Volkswagen scandal – who has really been harmed?

The Volkswagen scandal – who has really been harmed?

The Volkswagen scandal (aka #dieselgate), where the VW motor group was caught cheating pollution emissions tests in the US, has been rumbling on for some time now. The media are having a field day, drivers are starting to believe they should receive compensation. The one issue which has not been fully addressed is who has really been harmed?

Mostly the scandal is being portrayed by the media as a “consumer rights” issue, there is some talk about protection of the environment, although if most car buyers really cared about “the environment”, they would have bought an electric car or a hybrid. Some people have written to the papers to say as much, fully admitting that for most drivers “the environment” is low on their list of priorities and that cheap motoring is far more important to them. Very little is being said in the media about the impact of air pollution on human health caused by motor vehicles – this is the real scandal.

We know that air pollution is a serious issue, that is why there are Air Quality Standards (in the EU and around the world) which are (supposed to be) legally enforceable. Air pollution is an invisible killer, you can’t see it, you can’t smell or taste most of the cocktail of pollutants, but it is killing us. In much of Europe urban air is not fit to breathe, the major cause of this is motor vehicles, especially diesel cars. Although petrol cars are not as harmless as some in the media and the motoring lobby would have us believe, 22% of modern petrol cars fail to achieve emission limits on the road. Furthermore, particle emissions from new petrol engines (gasoline direct injection or GDI) are higher than from equivalent diesel vehicles.

The true scandal is that across the EU there are 500,000 premature deaths every year, also 250,000 hospital admissions which, in addition to the human costs and suffering, also cost the economy 100,000,000 lost working days. This all adds up to over €940,000,000 (£665m) in lost productivity per year. These are the real scandals!

Let’s be clear, Volkswagen is not the only culprit, every major car manufacturer is selling vehicles that fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road:

Euro-6-Twitter

All this is happening despite the fact that EURO 6 regulations require cars to be tested under “normal driving conditions” – these rules were introduced in 2007. As yet, the regulators are not using portable emission monitoring systems (PEMS) to measure the actual pollution from vehicle exhausts in real-world driving emission (RDE) tests. Why not? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the supposedly independent testing bodies get up to 70% of their funding from the motor industry? Or is it because of the direct power of the motoring lobby? Either way, our democracy (and our health) is directly threatened by such lobbying, not just at the EU level – Westminster is, if anything, more corrupt than Brussels.

It is time we all stood up and said enough is enough! There are no technical reasons why the existing emission limits could not be met quickly and urban air pollution rapidly improved. Yes it would mean that motoring would become more expensive for individuals, but the current situation is that we are all paying the price, not just those causing the pollution. The benefits of private motoring to the few are massively outweighted by the cost to all of us. I agree with Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for south-east England:

For too long European car makers have been ducking the EU’s rules to enable them to keep their highly polluting cars on the road. The huge scandal with Volkswagen on car pollution rules must focus the minds of EU politicians and the British government. Air pollution kills tens of thousands in the UK every year. With the added unchecked emissions from Volkswagen cars, I worry about how much worse the situation actually is.  

We need a truly independent European type approval authority, this should be funded by a levy on each new vehicle sold, paid for by the manufacturers with robust regulation to ensure independent testing. This should also be backed up with strict annual testing of vehicles, to ensure they continue to meet acceptable pollution limits. The current MOT test is not fit for purpose and needs to be brought up to date, with heavy penalties for both tester and motorist, if they are caught trying to cheat the system.

It is a matter of urgency for the European Commission to bring forward proposals for Euro 7 emissions limits so that the limits for diesel, petrol and natural gas vehicles are all the same, and also to ensure WHO health limits are met throughout Europe. Closer to home, we need make all our built-up areas low emission zones. We cannot choose where we breathe, so we must stop vehicles polluting our air. The technology to clean up vehicle exhausts is available and costs little. It is a small price to pay compared to the nearly €1 trillion (£1.36 billion) spent annually on health care and lost productivity. Vehicles with engines, running on whichever fuel, must be stopped from polluting our air or prevented from accessing our towns and cities. We should ALL have the right to clean air wherever we are as we ALL need to breathe.

Don’t just take my word of it, here is Dr Ian Mudway at Routes to Clean Air, Health Effects of Air Pollution.

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