• The empire strikes back: the return of dirty diesel as ‘clean’

    Choked with toxic fumes, more and more cities across Europe are planning diesel bans. Even the iconic homes of Daimler and BMW, Stuttgart and Munich respectively, are considering the step in light of the high real-world emissions of nitrogen oxides. But German regional and national governments are striking back and partnering with the German car industry against the health of citizens to promote diesel as “clean”.

    Photo: DUH

    Bavaria has recently agreed an anti-pollution programme with BMW, Audi and MAN to pave the way for new tax breaks for diesel vehicles. Then the Merkel government announced the creation of a National Diesel Forum with the task to clean up Euro 4, 5 and 6 diesels already on the road. The aim is clear: to force cities to accept “cleaned up” diesels and curb local restriction measures. Germany has also announced the formation of a new national testing institute to measure NOx and CO2 in real-driving conditions. But dig deeper and the funding is coming from the car industry. That will also have significant influence over which vehicles are tested by the institute, how they are tested, and what is published.

    Past retrofit schemes to clean up cars, vans and trucks have a poor record and delivered minimal real-world savings at high costs. Many Euro 4 and 5 cars do not have the right hardware or space to fit effective exhaust after-treatment necessary to deliver low NOx emissions. So the German proposals can only upgrade the software and switch back on aftertreatment systems that should never have been switched off! This may result in slightly better air pollution emissions but poorer fuel economy and reliability issues.

    The German government appears to have learned nothing from the Dieselgate scandal and the Ministry of Transport continues to operate opaquely. Nearly two years after the scandal broke, VW has still not accepted any guilt in Europe or being fined by the German KBA that approved its cars. In the meantime VW is silencing its critics back home – German NGO DUH was recently taken to court for exposing illegally high emissions of some VW vehicles after the fix.

    Ramping up electric vehicles would be a much cheaper and effective solution and would also clean up urban air. But instead of driving the development of clean electric cars and vans, Germany is falling behind France and China in the race to electrification and has abandoned its target of one million cars on Germany’s roads by 2020. Instead it thinks a scheme to half clean up dirty diesels is the answer in order to undermine the progress cities are demanding. What is needed is a forward-looking policy including ambitious 2025 and 2030 car CO2 targets and targets for electric car sales. If not, the electric cars on Germany’s roads will have made in China stamped on the side and it’s the country’s prized automotive industry will begin to resemble Nokia and Kodak.