Five years after dieselgate, cars are still dirty. What went wrong?

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When car manufacturers’ rampant emissions cheating exploded into the headlines in 2015, Dieselgate became one of the biggest corporate scandals in history. Four-and-a-half years later, Volkswagen and its peers have yet to clean up their mess – and governments across Europe still aren’t demanding they do so.

Too often, we lose sight of this big picture in a public conversation about pollution that focuses mostly on what cities can do to clean their own air. Local measures like London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone are delivering real progress, but it is crucial to remember that we only need them because of this much larger, and more consequential, failure.

Fifty-one million diesels on European roads – including 8.5 million in Britain – are still emitting three or more times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide, the research group Transport & Environment found in September. And while new diesels are cleaner than those made before the cheating came to light, manufacturers are still exploiting loopholes to sell cars that are far dirtier than regulations ostensibly require.

The failure by European governments, including Britain’s, to properly enforce pollution rules – their reluctance to make regulations written on paper mean something out in the world – is the root of our diesel pollution mess. And it stands in sharp contrast to the United States’ much tougher approach.

The American authorities, who exposed VW’s cheating in the first place, moved aggressively to stop it. And they forced VW to pay billions of dollars to recall, upgrade or buy back cars it had equipped with defeat devices – software that switched on pollution controls when the vehicles were being tested, and turned them off, or way down, the rest of the time.

Such action was the reason many diesels – not just Volkswagens, but models sold by most of the big manufacturers – were found to be pumping out up to 40 times as much nitrogen dioxide on the road as in the lab.

Europe has tightened testing of new cars since the scandal, but even now the companies are taking advantage of the many loopholes that remain. And despite the flagrant cheating, Britain and other European nations have still not demanded that cars already out on roads be brought into compliance with pollution rules. Instead, they let a politically powerful industry get away with cheap software tweaks that have not fixed the problem.

So today, we are all living with the legacy of the companies’ malfeasance – millions of cars polluting far more than our rules say they can.

The consequences, although we cannot always see them, are deadly. An overwhelming body of evidence shows air pollution is strongly linked to increased rates of ailments including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, premature birth and much more. The bottom line, scientists tell us, is that when air gets dirtier, more people die.

Given that reality, it is understandable that mayors and other local officials are taking action, using the levers they have to protect residents’ health. London’s Sadiq Khan has been leading the way, and recent data shows the ULEZ – which levies a fee on those bringing most pre-2015 diesels into the city’s centre – is making a real difference.

A study found the zone, along with Khan’s plans to speed up the replacement of diesel buses and taxis, would prevent 1.2 million air pollution-related hospitalisations over the next 30 years, saving the health and social care systems £5 billion.

But the ULEZ and restrictions like it being adopted or considered in cities from Paris to Coventry are not only less effective than tougher policing of car manufacturers would be. They are also less fair, and more politically precarious.

That is because, by necessity, they put the costs of cleaning up not onto the vast corporations who created this problem, but individual drivers, who have to either pay a fee or buy a better car. No local politician has the power to make VW and its peers foot the bill to get rid of the clouds of fumes their cheating left us with.

Khan is up for re-election in May, and his plan to expand the ULEZ from the small central area it now covers all the way to the North and South Circular roads is sure to be a big issue in the campaign.

But the quality of our air – and of our health – shouldn’t depend on the outcome of any local election. That it does is not Khan’s fault, but the responsibility of successive national governments, in Britain and across Europe, that have failed to do their jobs.

Of course, traffic is not the only source of pollution. Despite the widespread perception of wood fires as natural and cozy, their smoke is in fact filled with toxins and the pollution particles tiny enough to penetrate deep into our bodies. The growing popularity of wood-burning stoves, buoyed by a misperception that they are environmentally friendly, threatens to erase gains being delivered by measures like the ULEZ. Pollution from coal-fired power plants as far away as Poland makes its way to Britain, as do emissions from industrialised agriculture, which recombine in the air to form dangerous particles.

And today, of course, the climate crisis demands we do much more than make diesel and petrol cars run as clean as the rules require. We have to build a future of zero emission vehicles – and one in which we are less dependent on cars altogether. Here, cities have an important role to play. They can close central areas to private vehicles, make walking and cycling safe and easy, and – with funding from national coffers – make our public transport networks bigger, better and more affordable.

Even so, our air could be so much cleaner right now, if only national leaders would finally put some real muscle into making vast corporations respect the law.

Beth Gardiner is the author of Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight for a Cleaner Future and one of the speakers at WIRED Health London on March 25, 2020. For more details, and to book your ticket, click here.

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