How conniving carmakers caused the diesel air pollution crisis

Cheating, dodging rules and heavy lobbying by motor manufacturers fuelled the toxic air the UK is struggling with today

Conniving car makers and their lobbying might, assisted by the 2008 financial crash, were the key factors in producing the diesel-fuelled air pollution crisis the UK is struggling with today, according to key observers of the disaster.

Earlier government decisions to incentivise diesel vehicles, which produce less climate-warming carbon dioxide, sparked the problem but were made in good faith. The heart of the disaster is instead a giant broken promise: the motor industry said it would clean up diesel but instead cheated and dodged the rules for years.

The result has been that the air people breathe in cities and towns is now heavily polluted with toxic nitrogen dioxide, causing 23,500 premature deaths a year in the UK and affecting many schools. The government, whose inadequate plans have twice been declared illegal, will come up with a new, court-ordered strategy as soon as next week.

“We were told by the vehicle manufacturers the [diesel emissions] limits would be met and there was no problem,” said Greg Archer, who was managing the UK government’s air pollution research two decades ago, when new tax breaks led to the diesel boom. “What of course actually happened was those limits were not met on the road, as the car manufacturers started to turn down the after-treatment systems and cheat the tests.”

The government’s chief scientific adviser at the time, Sir David King, tells the same story: “I was convinced the [motor manufacturers] could manage the problem. It turns out we were wrong.”

The European Union has set increasingly tough emissions standards for NO2 since 2000, which would have kept levels down. But rather than deliver cars that met these limits in everyday driving, manufacturers created vehicles that passed the tests, conducted in standard conditions on rollers, but emitted pollutants at higher levels once out of the test centre.

This sharp practice was motivated by the opportunity to shave costs or avoid the inconvenience of drivers needing to top up pollution-busting chemicals more than once a year. It has led to the bizarre situation where diesel cars produce 10 times more toxic air pollution than heavy trucks and buses, as the latter have always faced strict tests.

By the mid-2000s, however, it was clear to air pollution experts that something was very wrong. NO2 levels were rising in cities, not falling, and on-the-road testing was starting to show that diesel vehicles were belching out vastly more pollution than they were supposed to.

In 2005, the European commission decided real-world tests were needed to close the loopholes the car makers were exploiting and aimed to put these into force in 2009. But then came the financial crash and falling car sales, leading to ever more intense lobbying against tighter rules from the motor industry. A “regulatory holiday” ensued, according to Archer.

The tougher tests will finally begin in September, eight years late and only because of the VW “dieselgate” scandal, in which the German motor giant was caught red-handed by US – not EU – regulators.

The European parliament’s inquiry into the scandal, approved this week, is stark on the cause of these “excessive” delays: the “choices of political priorities [by national governments], lobby influence and constant pressure from the industry that directed the focus ... to avoiding burdens on industry in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis”.

A glimpse of the backroom dealing done by national governments to protect their powerful car makers from greener regulations – whether NO2 or CO2 – was revealed in 2013. Germany offered to derail an EU cap on bankers’ bonuses, which the UK opposed, in return for British support in sidelining the stricter car regulations: all were duly kicked into the long grass.

While VW were caught in outright cheating, virtually all manufacturers have systematically circumvented the intended pollution limits. “There is strong evidence that vehicle manufacturers have employed a wide range of practices that are, in effect, defeat devices by another name,” said Louise Ellman MP, chair of the UK parliament’s transport committee, in 2016.

The realisation that NO2 emissions are out of control has coincided with the growing realisation of their toxicity: earlier research had concentrated only on the particle pollution from exhausts. “We have now reached a point where we have reached a high level of NO2 and we have now got health evidence against NO2 – it’s perfect storm,” said Prof Frank Kelly, an eminent air pollution expert at Kings College London.

Motor manufacturers were well aware their vehicles were highly polluting on the road, Kelly said: “The car industry knew that, and they still know that. The car industry really has got a major role in this debacle.” Even after the VW dieselgate scandal, the vast majority of new diesel cars still pollute far above official EU limits.

Steve Gooding, director of the motoring group, the RAC Foundation, said: “The real-world emissions performance of many vehicles has turned out to be a far cry from the hoped-for improvements the standards were intended to deliver. Going forward we need a testing regime we can all trust and cars that meet or preferably exceed the required standard.”

The new, more realistic tests will help, but with each nation responsible for approving the cars that its domestic companies produce, the tendency for leniency could continue. The European parliament’s proposal for an independent, EU-level regulator was rejected this week by centre-right MEPs, including those from the UK’s Conservative party.

“Car manufacturers have consistently failed to hit air pollution limits for diesel cars – it is about time prime minister Theresa May put the interests of people’s health above the interests of the car industry,” said Anna Heslop, of the environmental law firm ClientEarth, which has twice had the UK government’s plans to tackle air pollution declared illegally poor at the high court.

“With the government’s new air quality plans due before 24 April, she has the chance to prove that she can do this,” said Heslop. “Successive governments have got it wrong over diesel and the current government has had seven years to put it right and has done nothing to address the problem.”

ClientEarth and others say the motor industry should recall and refit the polluting vehicles it sold in the UK to emit less NO2, as has happened in Germany and France.

The car industry now welcomes the new testing regime it previously lobbied against. “It is well known that the existing emissions test is outdated, and industry welcomes a new, more robust regime coming this September,” said Tamzen Isacsson, at the SMMT trade body. “This will see cars tested on the road for the first time, meaning that the UK will be part of the toughest emissions standards in the world.”

Isacsson also noted: “Industry has invested billions into reducing emissions and has drastically reduced or banished pollutants such as particulates, sulphur and carbon monoxide, while the [latest] diesels are delivering vastly lower NO2 emissions.”

Archer remains unconvinced: “The car industry continues to be as obstructive as they have always been. Nothing has changed.”

But he has seen the start of change at the very top of the motor companies, he said: “When I talk to people on the boards of the companies, many now see there is a huge change underway, to electric, connected, digital cars and that that transformation is coming very fast.”

With Tesla overtaking Ford in value, green car sales rising fast and bans on diesel cars planned in some European cities, it may be the replacement of diesels, not cleaning them up, that finally clears the air.


Damian Carrington, Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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