Volkswagen scandal is a sorry sign of the times

By David Suzuki

Volkswagen was caught cheating on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions tests by installing “defeat devices,” which allowed its diesel vehicles to pass nitrogen oxide emissions checks but spew up to 40 times allowable pollutants once they were completed. The scandal has resulted in plummeting share prices, CEO Martin Winterkorn’s resignation and up to $18 billion in fines, as well as recalls, stop-sale orders, impending lawsuits and possible criminal charges.


Beyond the betrayal and legal and financial issues, the effect on global pollution is massive. Volkswagen is the world’s largest automaker by sales, and as many as 11 million of its diesel vehicles are implicated. According to the Guardian, “The rigging of emissions tests may have added nearly a million tonnes of air pollution by VW cars annually — roughly the same as the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture.” 


Nitrogen oxide pollution creates particulate matter that causes respiratory problems and is linked to millions of premature deaths every year worldwide. It’s also a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide and so contributes to global warming.


The Volkswagen debacle is bad enough in itself, but it also raises questions about automaker practices, pollution, emissions standards and testing and the implications of our rampant car culture. Volkswagen cheated on regulations designed to protect human health and the environment, and the consequences are increased rates of asthma, lung disease, cancer and death. But it’s not just diesel cars and it’s not just vehicles from one company. Cars kill and harm millions of people every year, with accidents, pollution, climate change and other environmental damage. And car-makers have in the past resisted safety improvements such as seatbelts and air bags.


Illegally rigging vehicles to pass emissions tests hurts everyone, but legal loopholes create similar problems. Just look at SUVs. I did a quick count of the many passing my office during the afternoon, and almost all contained a single driver — no passengers or even pets! Under emissions laws in Canada, the U.S., Japan and elsewhere, SUVs are classified as “light-duty trucks” and are subject to less strict emissions standards than cars. Yet, most people treat them the same as cars.


This creates incentives for manufacturers to produce more heavy vehicles or even to design cars as trucks, such as Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. According to theEconomist, “As vehicles above 3.8 tonnes were long exempted from the American regulation, manufacturers started producing enormous vehicles such as the Hummer to avoid any fuel-economy rules.”


Even with fuel-efficiency improvements, vehicle emissions have more than doubled since 1970 and will increase as demand rises in countries like China, India and Brazil, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Studies show that because fuel efficiency makes it less expensive to drive, people drive more. Clearly, we need better solutions.


It’s easy to say it starts with individuals. We can all find ways to reduce private automobile use. But individuals aren’t entirely to blame for our fossil-fuelled lifestyles. Incentives, regulations, policies and infrastructure are needed to create the necessary shift away from reliance on wasteful, inefficient transportation and fuel options.


We’ve seen many positive developments in recent years. In my hometown, Vancouver, and many other cities, car-sharing programs and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure are expanding rapidly. Hybrid and electric vehicle technologies are making great inroads. Recognition of the need for efficient public transit is also spreading around the world. And fuel taxes and carbon pricing have been proven effective at reducing reliance on private automobiles.


Taxing fossil fuel consumption may be more efficient than emissions standards because, as the Economist points out, fuel taxes encourage people, especially those who drive a lot, to buy more efficient cars and to drive less. And, “A fuel tax does not rely on dubious testing nor does it create distortive loopholes.” Revenue from taxes can be invested in cleaner transportation alternatives or, as with B.C.’s carbon tax, used to reduce income taxes or provide rebates to people with lower incomes.


It’s outrageous that a car manufacturer like Volkswagen would stoop to devious practices to get around laws designed to benefit all people, but in our car-driven culture, it’s not entirely surprising — just another signal that it’s time to rethink the way we move ourselves around.


Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.


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  1. You are right, Dr. Suzuki, for a company that started life as a multi-stakeholder effort involving the German Labour Front, and was to serve the public interest, this kind of episode demonstrates the level of short term profit motive that is the contrary of idealism.

    I would submit that the best thing VW could do in North America would be to become the patron sponsor of the PIRG [public interest research group] network. There are 21 in Canada and about 100 in the US that are part of the students unions at various universities. VW has a partnership with Stanford University to develop high density batteries for advanced electric vehicles. This partnership has become completely emersed in the proprietary culture of Silicon Valley – and it would be very helpful if VW were to put the public interest and access to research as a popular and accessible part of human social organization. Germany, and its focus on access to science through the Max Planck Institute network – and similar methods of acculturating a spirit of innovation and skill development – could become part of our social world view if VW could become a mentor of the PIRG system here. It would do a lot to overcome the culture of short sighted profit-seeking.

  2. Still trying to wrap my mind around this sordid scandal! – how on earth an outfit as large, as established, and as profitable as Volkswagen could stoop so low – in other words – throw out or ignore – EVERYTHING a normal person would consider reasonable: morality, moral compass, truth, integrity, sense of fairness, healthy competition, etc … all in the freaking name of: #GREED #GREED #GREED #GREED #GREED #GREED #GREED #GREED. So, this then begs the question: Do we need to get corporations out of politics??? Your bloody right we do!! and FAST!!

  3. Does anyone realize that while fingers get pointed at CEOs and other Corporate Execs and decision makers [and rightly so], no one ever mentions, references or points fingers at the bought and paid for engineers and scientists who help invent the fraudulent emissions technology. This also sheds further light on how Biotechs are run. While focus is mainly spotlighted on prominent individuals within these Biotech Corporate giants, no one will ever finger a scientist because the subject is so hallowed. The problem within science is that most people forget that scientists are human beings with all the same flaws, imperfections, prejudices, biases and greedy motivation that can be common with all other human beings. So yes as time pants on to the end, Dr Suzuki is correct, this is the sign of our times and the degenerate state of our natural world and downhill spiral of human society in general is a reflection of that.

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