The original Dieselgate scandal involved more than 11 million Volkswagen TDI diesel engines with software that allowed the cars to cheat on emissions tests. The company was found to have manipulated the software to make the cars appear to meet emissions standards set by regulators, even though they were emitting far higher levels of toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) when on the road.
The scandal was brought to light in September 2015 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since then, Volkswagen has been forced to pay customers billions of dollars in fines and compensation around the globe. The company has also faced a major public relations crisis and a significant decline in its global sales.
However, it appears that the damage caused by Dieselgate is not confined to Volkswagen alone. A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) indicates that the problem of emissions cheating is widespread across the industry and that millions of other diesel cars are still on Europe's roads, emitting harmful levels of pollutants.
The research team analysed real-world driving emissions from over 700,000 measurements across Europe between 2017 and 2020, using portable emissions measurement systems (PEMS) installed on the cars' tailpipes. The readings were compared to the cars' official Euro 5 and Euro 6 emissions standards, which are designed to limit the amount of harmful pollutants that can be released into the atmosphere. The results showed that on average, diesel cars were emitting significantly more NOx on the road than they were in laboratory tests.
The team then used statistical modelling techniques to estimate the number of "defeat devices" in the diesel cars. Their analysis suggested that around 85% of Euro 5 diesel cars, and 77% of Euro 6 diesel cars, may have such devices installed. In the United Kingdom, alarm has been raised over reports of diesel emissions-fuelled recalls. This same concern has expanded to France and Germany, as this negative environmental notion has reached global levels of awareness.
Official government tests totalling to 1,400 were used to collect data for the research. The tests were done in controlled settings. The findings of the study are as follows:
- For Euro 6 diesel-powered vehicles, 77% of the test results were suspicious and may indicate unlawful emission levels
- For Euro 5 vehicles, around 85% of the test results were suspicious
- Approximately 40% of the test results showed extreme levels of emissions, clear proof that the vehicles had defeat devices
Implications for Air Quality and Public Health
The study's findings have significant implications for the ongoing efforts to improve air quality and protect public health throughout Europe. The excessive emissions generated by diesel cars, particularly those with cheat devices, contribute to high levels of air pollution in urban areas and are linked to various health problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution causes over 300,000 premature deaths annually across the EU.
Moreover, diesel cars are responsible for a significant proportion of the region's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary cause of climate change. The transport sector accounts for around a quarter of the EU's GHG emissions, and road transport is the largest contributor within that sector. Reducing the emissions from diesel cars is therefore essential to meeting the EU's climate targets and avoiding the worst impacts of global warming.
What NOx can do to you
NOx is highly reactive and contains dangerous gases such as nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide or NO2. It plays a significant role in the formation of smog and acid rain. It’s also responsible for producing a vegetation-damaging pollutant called ground-level ozone.
The most devastating effects of NOx emissions, however, are on a person’s health. If you have been regularly exposed to nitrogen oxide emissions, you can suffer from various health conditions for the rest of your life.
Your mental health can be affected and you’ll have frequent episodes of depression and anxiety. NOx can also weaken your cognitive health, which increases your risk of developing dementia.
You may also be hounded by these health conditions:
- Pulmonary oedema
- Cardiovascular diseases
Policy Responses to the Study
Various environmental groups have called for urgent action from policymakers to address the issue of emissions cheating in diesel cars. They recommend implementing more rigorous and independent testing procedures for vehicle emissions, as well as developing and enforcing stricter regulations on vehicle manufacturers. They also suggest that incentives should encourage consumers to switch to cleaner vehicles, such as electric cars.
Several European governments and institutions have already taken steps to tackle the issue of emissions from diesel cars. In 2015, the EU introduced new regulations that strengthened its emissions testing protocols and mandated real-world driving emissions tests for all new car models from 2017 onwards. Some cities have also implemented measures to reduce diesel emissions. Several European cities, including Paris, Madrid, and Athens, plan to ban all diesel cars from their urban centres by 2025, and others are imposing tariffs or taxes on diesel vehicles.
What Happens Now?
The ICCT report provides a stark reminder of the challenges that still lie ahead regarding reducing air pollution. Despite commitments from governments and car manufacturers to reduce emissions, progress has been slow, and the report suggests that many carmakers are still not doing enough to address the problem.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful. The study comes amid a growing awareness of the need to take action on climate change and air pollution. Governments and businesses are increasingly committing to ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and there is growing support for measures such as electric vehicles and public transport.
At the same time, initiatives such as “clean air zones” are gaining traction, and there is evidence that they can significantly reduce air pollution. Consumers can also play a role in this by making informed decisions about their purchases and switching to electric or hybrid vehicles. With sustained political will and continued investment in clean technologies, there is hope that we can clean up our air and protect public health for generations to come.
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