Exhaust pipe of a VW Tiguan, 25 September 2015 (EPA/Julian Stratenschulte)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

By Pauline Bock

The Volkswagen diesel car scandal has thrown a spotlight on corporate cheating, consumer regulations and health risks from pollutants that can blanket entire cities in smog.

Unlike greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, diesel emissions do not contribute to global warming and so are not on the agenda of the international COP21 conference in Paris at the end of the year.

But diesel vehicles can release highly reactive gases that produce harmful particles in the atmosphere and contribute to smog.

If you’ve visited Beijing, Delhi or Mexico City on a bad day, you’ve encountered the kind of pollution that regulations seek to combat — regulations that VW sought to dodge and regulations that some critics call patchy and toothless.

Killer pollutants

Diesel vehicles, unlike those that run on gas (petrol), release nitrogen oxides (NOx) that create particulate matter when entering the atmosphere.

These tiny particles can lead to bronchitis and asthma, and they increase the risks of heart diseases, strokes and lung cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Exposure to pollution such as tiny particles kill up to 3.7 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). If nothing is done, this toll could double by 2050, it estimates.

In urban areas, almost one third of fine particulate matter comes from tailpipe emissions from road transport. The United States has made great strides in reducing smog.

But in Paris, London and Munich, NOx levels are twice EU limits, according to the European Environment Agency. In European cities, between 36,000 to 129,000 adult deaths a year, and 6,000 to 10,000 hospital admissions are linked to long-term exposure to air pollutants generated by traffic, according to the WHO.

And many cities in Asia and Latin America are shrouded in smog.

U.S. and EU lead the way

International regulations are a patchwork that critics say fail adequately to protect consumers.

The United States was the first country to set standards limiting vehicle emissions. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, calling for the first tailpipe emission standards. The standards have since been tightened several times. The requirement for light-duty vehicles emission control systems was doubled in 1990.

The EU followed in 1990, adopting U.S. standards for all new, light-duty vehicles sold after 1993 within the bloc.

North American and EU standards and test procedures are now the two main international systems. Canada and Mexico have adopted the U.S. standards, while Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have adopted the U.S. standards and/or procedures.

The less strict EU standards are used in some former Soviet bloc and Asian countries.

Japan set emission standards and testing procedures in 1991 that are similar to the EU’s and are used as supplementary standards by some East Asian countries.

Bangkok, Cairo, Jakarta, Mexico City, Santiago, São Paulo and Tehran are all focusing on trying to curb NOx or particulate matter. But there is no comprehensive, international standard even though most car companies sell in many markets.

Labs versus roads

The offending software in the VW cars is able to determine when a car is undergoing a laboratory test and can then adjust emissions to meet regulatory standards. It’s called “cycle beating.”

Transport & Environment, which groups a number of European NGOs, said in a recent report that “no car maker has ever been prosecuted for cycle beating in the EU but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is widespread.”

The problem in Europe, where diesel fuel is widely used, goes well beyond one offending car maker or cycle beating, and extends to the regulatory system.

The crux of the regulatory problem is in the procedures: Tests are carried out in laboratories, which deliver impressive results but where conditions often do not reflect driving in real-life traffic.

Manufacturers can take advantage of tricks of the trade to lower emissions during lab tests: removing all optional extras to reduce weight, over-inflating the tires, using special engine oil, smoothing the track, improving the vehicle’s aerodynamics or disconnecting the brakes.

Because of discrepancies between results in the lab and on the road, diesel cars and vans in Europe produce on average around five times more pollution when driven on the road than is permissible in the lab, according to Transport & Environment.

Technology for cleaner diesels exists but car makers are balking because they save up to £220 ($340) per car by not adding clean technologies, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The European Commission agreed last May to test new cars in real driving conditions, but it has not yet set a limit on emissions under real conditions. It hopes to start applying real-driving condition limits in the autumn of 2017.

Individual countries may have to act soon. Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and Luxembourg face potential EU fines if they fail to reduce their NOx emissions by 2020, according to the European Environment Agency.

Environmentalists say a shift into biofuels, hydrogen and natural gas could help those countries meet their targets in that time frame.

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DecodersPollution, rules & tests: the VW scandal
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