Widening scandal over vehicle emissions threatens climate accord

Governments are counting on regulatory action and voluntary pledges by companies to meet climate targets. The scandals and shortcomings involving carmakers show the pitfalls of the strategy.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 May, 2016, 8:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2016, 8:20pm

Goals set by governments that signed the Paris climate change agreement last month were based on figures determined to be attainable. A widening scandal involving carmakers that cheated on testing to make their vehicles appear more environmentally-friendly than they actually were could weaken the accord or even make it meaningless. About one-fifth of greenhouse gases causing global temperatures to rise come from emissions related to the transport sector. Confidence and trust have been shaken, which is reason for increased oversight and research into better mobility solutions.

Millions of cars, most of them diesel, are likely to be recalled for buybacks or repairs. Volkswagen in the US and Mitsubishi in Japan have so far been the biggest casualties, but investigations are now also under way in Europe into diesel vehicles manufactured by Daimler, GM and PSA Peugeot Citroen. About 630,000 cars made by Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Porsche and VW are voluntarily being recalled to tweak software involved in emissions of nitrogen oxide. There is good reason to suspect that petrol-driven vehicles that produce carbon dioxide gases, the main cause of global warming, will be next.

VW has been the face of the scandal, its admission last September after US investigations that it had installed software in 11 million diesel cars worldwide to deceive environmental regulators causing outrage. It has set aside US$18.2 billion to deal with the fallout and its share price has plummeted. Mitsubishi Motors’ stock value has also plunged, hit by last month’s revelation that the firm falsified test results to overstate the fuel efficiency of 625,000 vehicles produced for the Japanese market by between five and 10 per cent. What that means for emissions in Japan is unclear, but the US Environmental Protection Agency is more certain about the impact of VW’s cheating; it contends the firm’s diesel cars were emitting up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than they were supposed to. In Europe, carmakers deny wrongdoing, although a British study has found 37 models, while meeting legal limits in the laboratory, exceed levels by up to 12 times when on the road.

Governments are counting on regulatory action and voluntary pledges by companies to meet climate targets. The scandals and shortcomings involving carmakers show the pitfalls of the strategy. Watchdogs have a crucial role in keeping authorities and firms on track. Encouraging the development of better technologies and more sustainable transport systems is as important.