Did Dieselgate Permanently Damage Our Air?
The Dieselgate scandal, which emerged in 2015, saw the world’s largest and most reputable vehicle manufacturers caught cheating on emissions tests on diesel vehicles. This act of deceit resulted in harmful pollutants exceeding the legal limits, which had dire consequences for the environment and public health. The scandal had far-reaching economic, environmental, and health implications and raised some critical questions. Did Dieselgate permanently damage our air, and if so, what are the long-term consequences for human health and the environment?
Dieselgate: A Brief Overview
The Dieselgate scandal was a massive deception conducted by several of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers, primarily German automakers Volkswagen Group, Audi, and Porsche. These companies used sophisticated software or “defeat devices” to cheat emissions tests, resulting in damaging effects of diesel emissions on the environment and public health. The devices caused the vehicles to emit less pollution during laboratory tests than they did in the real world. This misleading practice resulted in vehicles producing significantly more harmful emissions and pollutants than they were officially certified to produce. The awareness of these excessive emission levels was also reflected in Peugeot, Citroen, and Renault emission claims.
Air Quality in the UK before and after Dieselgate
Before Dieselgate, the level of air pollution in the UK was already high. According to a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), air pollution contributes to about 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Traffic is the primary cause of air pollution in urban areas.
The UK already had regulations in place to reduce the amount of diesel engine emissions, but they were not comprehensive enough. The EU’s Euro 5 emission standards, introduced in 2009, set limits on emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) from diesel engines. However, these standards were not as strict as they could have been, and the UK government failed to enforce them effectively.
Diesel engines release a higher amount of NOx than petrol engines, which is a significant contributor to air pollution in the UK. Moreover, diesel engines contribute to the formation of PM, which is harmful to the respiratory system and can lead to lung cancer. The unwelcome news is that diesel engines were more popular in the UK than anywhere else in Europe.
The Dieselgate scandal started with a vehicle testing project overseen by researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) based in Berlin and Washington. These tests revealed that many vehicles did not meet the Euro 5 emission standards, and some had higher levels of emissions than authorised. The scandal prompted the implementation of a stricter testing procedure in the European Union in 2019.
However, the ICCT has recently disclosed compelling evidence indicating that approximately 13 million diesel vehicles, known to be highly polluting, which were sold between 2009 and 2019, are still in operation. Additionally, the ICCT has identified millions of diesel vehicles exhibiting “suspicious” emission levels. These vehicles encompass a wide range of 200 different models manufactured by all major automotive companies. Over the past 12 years, our environment has been contaminated by approximately 500,000 tonnes of excessive NOx emissions. This has significantly diminished air quality, led to the formation of smog, caused acid rain, and had adverse effects on human health and longevity.
Dieselgate’s consequences were not limited to air pollution and public health; it also had economic and environmental implications. The UK government has been taking steps to phase out diesel engines altogether, which is part of a large push towards electric vehicles. For example, are encouraging local authorities to invest in sustainable transport, including cleaner diesel technologies and electric-powered buses.
Measures that have also been introduced include the introduction of ultra-low-emission zones (ULEZs) in certain cities such as London. Here, motorists who fail to meet the minimum emissions standards could face a hefty daily charge when driving in the heart of the city. England’s first such zone was created in London in the spring of 2019 and was followed by other cities such as Birmingham, Bath, and Bristol.
The pollutants and emissions produced by diesel engines have long-term environmental impacts. Diesel engines are responsible for around 24% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of climate change. The pollutants contribute significantly to global warming and have devastating effects on biodiversity, ecosystems, and the planet’s natural habitats.
Dieselgate has had a significant impact on air quality in the UK, but the pre-existing problem of poor air quality had already existed. The scandal serves as a stark reminder that the public health impact of air pollution can be catastrophic, highlighting the importance of holding manufacturers to account for diesel claims and that all stakeholders must work together to tackle the problem.