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What is behind the diesel cars emissions scandal?

All 93 vehicles tested in Germany and UK exceeded EU-set limits on air quality and pollution in real-world situation

The air pollution scandal that hit front pages around the world last year with VW’s admission it had been cheating emissions tests has got much bigger.

A UK government-sponsored trial launched in the wake of the VW revelations has found that every single one of the diesel-fuelled vehicles tested had higher emissions of nitrogen oxide pollutants than permitted under EU laws. For some models emissions were 12 times the legal limit.

None of the 56 vehicles tested in Germany and 37 in the UK was found to have a defeat device aimed at artificially lowering its emissions under test conditions, such as those used by VW. But all were found to exceed the EU-set standards on air quality and pollution when driven in real-world situations. Clearly there are important questions for manufacturers.

So what is happening? Crucially, the higher emissions were found to be the result of engine management systems that are routinely used by manufacturers to improve the performance of their vehicles. One by-product is more polluting emissions.

Environmentalists say the result is not unexpected. “This confirms what experts have been saying for years: deadly emissions are far higher in the real world than in controlled tests in the lab,” said Oliver Hayes of Friends of the Earth.

“Governments say they are championing ‘real driving emissions’ but this is a smokescreen. These standards are far weaker than those that currently exist.”

This points to the inadequacy of current testing regimes, but it also reveals a much more alarming truth: that manufacturers are tuning their vehicles’ engines in a way that hurts all of us. Engine management systems have become standard across the industry, and these new tests make it clear that they are there for one purpose: to improve the performance of the car, even if that comes at the expense of those breathing in the air from their exhausts.

Diesel engines produce much higher levels of air pollutants than petrol-driven engines, although they produce less carbon dioxide. This has led EU member states to encourage drivers into diesel cars, reducing the impact of driving on climate change but vastly increasing the problem of air pollution.

The UK is one of the few EU countries that tax diesel at the same rate as petrol, as most countries skew their taxation levels to favour diesel (although tax parity still favours diesels because they do more miles per gallon).

It is ironic that the push for lower carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change has led to higher air pollution. And the European commission has been slow to get to grips with the problem. A major announcement on air pollution in late 2013 failed to even mention diesel cars.

But the problem is now pressing, as new research is revealing the extent of the damage being done routinely to our health, particularly the majority of the world’s population who live in cities. About 7% of deaths are caused or contributed to by air pollution, according to the World Health Organisation, and the effects on people’s quality of life is even greater. Long a silent killer, air pollution is now being recognised for its devastating effects, particularly on small children and older people.

The question those breathing the pollution will be asking is whether governments are prepared to act.

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