Volkswagen and Climate in Historical Perspective

Volkswagen and Climate in Historical Perspective

Now that Volkswagen’s emissions trickery has joined Enron’s fraudulent bookkeeping, BP’s exploding Macondo well, and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant on the list of great energy disasters of the 21st century, it’s time to assess what this scheme implies for the future of automobiles and our environmental challenges.

Most commentators have focused on the impacts of VW’s now notorious “default devices” on air quality, but any damage to the popularity of diesel cars will also affect strategies to slow climate change.

From a climate perspective, diesel engines have been somewhat comparable to natural gas that displaces coal – not perfect solutions for protecting the atmosphere but offering practical options that could cut carbon emissions for some considerable time below what they otherwise would have been.

Diesel engines appeal because their gas mileage is about 30 percent better than gasoline equivalents, at an added cost that is modest compared to batteries needed for plug-in or all-electric vehicles. Their acceleration and torque surpass those of hybrids like Toyota’s Prius, making them potentially attractive to a broader range of drivers.

Skepticism among major environmental organizations that diesels could deal adequately with emissions of nitrogen oxides and soot has over the years discouraged the United States from giving them the favored treatment accorded electric vehicles, or even for a time cars propelled by mobile fuel cells. Europe, taking more urgently the standards of the Rio and Kyoto agreements on climate change, pushed diesel technology, in part with lower taxes.

After European diesels appeared to meet California’s tough air pollution standards, I was critical of U.S. policy for stacking the deck against diesels here with, for one, higher taxes. But with VW’s great deception and the prospects for major advances in batteries, the government’s bet on electric vehicles is looking more prescient.

There could be some silver linings in the cloud of VW’s cheating scandal. The brouhaha will certainly inspire better monitoring of compliance with existing standards for air pollution. EPA is already increasing the importance of real world, on road testing to assess clean air worthiness of new diesel vehicles.

As Peter McClintock noted in The New York Times last week, new remote sensing technology can also monitor all vehicles from the roadside, provide more accurate measurements than lab tests, and produce big data helpful for identifying trends and potential solutions.

If the scandal puts a spotlight on the limitations of testing vehicles in labs, it could also benefit the monitoring of compliance with auto efficiency standards. These are major weapons for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but have also suffered from the inability of lab tests to mirror results on the road. Climate gains will come if actual performance better matches claims on EPA stickers.

There is another potential silver lining that has been more difficult to introduce into what often turns out to be a political discussion. The scandal might stimulate more attention on the behavior of drivers.

Before the Prius was available for sale in the American market, I was invited by Toyota to test-drive the first one to cross the Pacific. As the company rep stressed, this model had been designed of the Japanese market and the cars coming to America would have much peppier acceleration to meet the expectations of drivers here. Though far from quick by U.S. standards, the Americanized version that arrived in showrooms was, indeed, speedier than its Japanese counterpart -- but at the cost of poorer gas mileage.

The demands of sports-minded drivers do not justify the fraud of Volkswagen, but they do create difficulties for manufacturers that have to meet increasingly tough clean air and mileage efficiency standards, while responding to an almost insatiable desire for sporty performance.

Technology can eliminate much of this problem. One can even contemplate that someday an all-electric fleet of vehicles (with Tesla-like acceleration) will be powered entirely from carbon-free sources. But that day is far from eminent, and advanced technologies will need incentives that go beyond tax breaks and standards.

Ultimately, there will need to be a cost for the carbon in transportation fuels – as with a carbon tax than is rebated to everyone on a per capita basis – to maximize environmental goals.

In 1977, Louisiana’s inscrutable Senator Russell Long surprised many by supporting a tax on gas-guzzling cars. The Chairman of the Finance Committee began by defending the right of drivers to own such vehicles if they wanted, but then added that they certainly ought to pay for the privilege.

The same logic applies to standards to protect the air we breathe and the atmosphere that moderates our climate. In America, we won’t stop people from buying cars that zoom off the starting blocks or drive as far as they want, but we can make sure they pay for the privilege.

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