10 June 2021

The Guardian: “Dirty lies: how the car industry hid the truth about diesel emissions”

And, as it turned out, Volkswagen wasn’t the only one evading the law. Less flagrantly, but to similar effect, the vast majority of diesel cars were making a mockery of emissions rules. In the wake of the revelations in the US, European governments road-tested other big brands too. In Germany, testers found all but three of 53 models exceeded NOx limits, the worst by a factor of 18. In London, the testing firm Emissions Analytics found 97% of more than 250 diesel models were in violation; a quarter produced NOx at six times the limit. As the data kept coming in, our jaws just kept dropping. Because it is just so systematic, and so widespread, German says. VW isn’t even in the worst half of the manufacturers. With a few honourable exceptions, everybody’s doing it.

As Mock spoke, I began to absorb the particulars of Europe’s stunning failure. It starts with an enforcement structure that almost seems designed to let violators through. The European commission sets the rules on how much pollution a car is allowed to produce. But the job of enforcing them falls not to Brussels, but to national governments. And a car company preparing to release a new model can choose which country certifies it; every EU nation must then honour the approval. A savvy carmaker opts for a place where it provides lots of jobs, where officials are likely to be pliant.

The national enforcement agencies, for their part, are generally understaffed, poorly funded and lacking in technical expertise. Britain is an exception, but in most nations these weak agencies don’t even test cars themselves. About a dozen individual vehicles must be checked before a new model is approved, and the tests are often run by outside contractors. When they are done, the manufacturers hand the paperwork to regulators, and the results, says Mock, are usually accepted with little question.

Beth Gardiner

An older story, but exemplary to how big corporations can act against public interest if left unsupervised by government regulations and proper enforcement. The drive of senior management towards generating profits incentivizes them to search for shortcuts, to circumvent inconvenient rules and discard alarm signals from within the organization. And sooner or later this leads to negative outcomes, from the many toxic consequences of Facebook’s influence on public information, to unnecessary deaths, as it was the case with Boeing and even NASA.

A Tesla Model S being assembled by robots in Fremont, California
A Tesla Model S being assembled by robots in Fremont, California. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Today, electric vehicles look like the best way to slash both sorts of pollution, another place where the goals of a healthy climate and healthy bodies converge. Electricity by itself is no guarantee of climate friendliness. But it is a necessary prerequisite to powering cars from clean sources such as wind and solar.

Electric cars are not a cure-all. While they don’t create exhaust emissions, their brakes and tyres give off tiny, toxic particles as they wear. The energy needed to manufacture them, and the raw materials used in their bodies and batteries, will be unsustainable if car ownership keeps increasing.

For now, that relentless rise frames everything. The number of vehicles in the US has more than tripled since 1960; in the UK, there is one car for every two people. And the biggest growth is now in developing nations such as India and China. If they follow the path we have taken, the world could go from about 1bn cars today to more than 3bn by 2050. What is really needed is not just a slowing of that growth, but fewer cars altogether, of any sort.

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