The Volkswagen diesel scandal is shining a spotlight on the importance of monitoring and managing potentially deadly exhaust emissions in Australia. By Caroline Falls.

Focus on air quality after Volkswagen data trickery

When scientists and researchers arrived at Melbourne’s Pullman Hotel overlooking Albert Park Lake for an air-quality conference on September 21, the room was abuzz, electrified with conversation. Two days earlier, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced it had extracted a confession of diesel emissions data trickery from German automaker Volkswagen.

Some 500,000 diesel-powered VWs had been fitted with software designed to detect when they were subjected to American laboratory tests. The tests had to be passed for the vehicles to be fit for sale in the US, where emissions standards are the most stringent in the world. On the lab’s dynamometer – a kind of treadmill – the car went into a driving mode that had low enough emissions. In the real world, though, certain emissions were found to be 10 to 40 times the limit.

“It’s a scandal,” says Mark Hibberd, president of CASANZ, the 50-year-old Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand, which organised the event. But, he said, he realised that as ugly as the VW news was, it could be just the catalyst this band of clean-air champions needed to build community awareness and political will for a change in Australian air-quality standards. 

“It’s a great opportunity to put more pressure on. I said as much in my opening address,” says Hibberd, whose day job is as an atmospheric research scientist at CSIRO. “Australia has been very, very slow to get air quality onto the national agenda.” 

Some standards were developed in 1998 and they were to be reviewed after 10 years. That was set back as water became top priority and demands to fix the Murray-Darling escalated during the ensuing drought. “That took money away from air,” says Hibberd. In addition, he notes, Australians see pictures of Beijing and elsewhere shrouded in black smog and hear stories of warnings for people to stay indoors to protect their health and think, “We’re clean.” 

The health implications, though, are significant. Diesel emissions from cars contain dangerous particles (PM2.5 and PM10) and a group of gases known as nitrogen oxides (NOX), including the particularly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These have been linked to respiratory diseases, including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and cardiovascular diseases. In 2012, the World Health Organisation reported 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide attributable to air pollution. The same year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel exhaust emissions as a No. 1 carcinogenic. In 2013, IARC identified diesel exhaust emissions as a cause of lung cancer. 

In July, London mayor Boris Johnson announced that NO2 had caused 5900 premature deaths in the city in 2010. It is the first city in the world to quantify a death toll attributable to that gas. Another 3500 deaths were blamed on airborne particles from diesel.

“The mayor has also estimated that about 90 per cent of NO2 exhaust emissions come from diesel vehicles,” said Simon Birkett, the Melbourne-educated London-based HSBC banker turned activist who started Clean Air in London in 2006. “The bottom line is that diesel vehicles are the biggest and most deadly single source of air pollution within London.” Birkett called on London’s mayor to ban diesel vehicles from the worst-affected areas of the city by 2020, including Westminster and Chelsea. Paris, where diesel vehicles also dominate traffic, has announced it will ban older model diesel cars from 2020.

Birkett was keynote speaker at the CASANZ conference, happy for a gig in his home town. The 55-year-old is an accidental activist. He came to it via a neighbourhood group in the Westminster Council area that was campaigning to stop rat-running in his local streets. He discovered Europe’s heavy pollution laws and thought if they were complied with he might get what he wanted: quieter streets. To cut a long story short, he gave up his bank job.

Birkett, since named to the United Nations Environment Programme’s advisory group Global Environment Outlook, counts his agitation for data on deaths linked to diesel emissions in London as one of his biggest achievements. Now he’d like to see Australian cities follow suit. 

“I spent three days at the conference asking people and no one knew what local concentrations of NO2 are where people live and work,” he says. “That is the biggest horror. It’s the bedrock for monitoring and managing local emissions.”

In Australia data linking health effects, let alone deaths, to diesel emissions is scant. People in health research and automotive circles have suggested 2000 to 3500 deaths each year in Australia could be linked to diesel emissions, more than the national road toll on either estimate. 

Australia has more than doubled its number of diesel vehicles in the past five years, with both VW and Audi diesel-powered vehicle sales growing more than 90 per cent in the same period. So there are a lot of new diesel drivers out there, concerned possibly for the first time about the environment credentials of their cars.  

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has called on VW Australia to provide it with marketing materials to determine if VW advertising, such as for clean diesel, may have breached consumer laws. ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the watchdog “will not hesitate to take action if consumers were exposed to false, misleading or deceptive representations”. He said fines of as much as $1.1 million per breach could be invoked. That’s about as tough a statement as we’ve had in Australia. 

This month, VW Australia suspended sales of vehicles fitted with 1.6 or 2.0-litre EA189 diesel engines, the same as those fitted with the “defeat device” in the US. Last week, it said more than 77,000 vehicles locally would be subject to a voluntary recall. VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, had earlier said 11 million vehicles worldwide were affected, news that precipitated a plunge of billions of dollars in the group’s share capital. 

“The suspension will remain until the emission issues are addressed in those vehicles,” Volkswagen Australia said in a press release. Meanwhile, Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon has said he will introduce a bill to impose greater penalties on car makers that inflate claims. Australian regulators accept car makers’ claims on face value: that is, there are no special local tests as in the US.

Australia follows European Commission so-called Euro standards on vehicle emissions, trailing implementation by several years. The lag is largely a protection for local automakers, as successive governments haven’t wanted to saddle them with additional, expensive demands for engine redesigns. Toyota, GM Holden and Ford have all announced plans to stop production in Australia before mid-2017 when the highest Euro 6 standard will come into force for all new light vehicles sold in Australia. That standard took effect in Europe last month.

Sales of certain new VW diesel vehicles have also been suspended or banned in the US, Canada, France and Switzerland among others. In Italy, the government is set to subject VW and seven of its competitors’ vehicles to special emissions testing. 

In the US, the cost of health damage from the VW deception has been estimated at as much as $US100 million by Noelle Eckley Selin, an atmospheric chemist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of data, systems and society. Her analysis, published on The Conversation, is based on an understanding of the atmosphere and of how pollutants affect human health. It indicates 34 deaths could be directly attributed to the VW deception. This opinion makes a lie of any claim that driving these vehicles is safe. It is also on top of up to $US18 billion in penalties faced by VW in the US, and costs associated with a recall of affected vehicles from VW and its stablemate Audi, including Golf, Passat, Beetle, Jetta and A3 models. 

Environment Minister Greg Hunt had been scheduled to speak at the CASANZ conference but that was scuttled with the overthrow of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader a week earlier. The new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had scheduled his ministerial reshuffle on the eve of the conference and no one knew if Hunt would keep his job. As it turned out, Hunt retained the portfolio. On the Monday, Hunt fronted a video played at the conference, saying his government was committed to reducing air pollution and improving air quality. He said his state counterparts had agreed to finalising a plan to introduce a National Clean Air Agreement aimed at reducing air pollution by the end of this year. The agreement will set new standards for diesel particulates and NO2 emissions that will then be built into other relevant regulations and legislation in state and Commonwealth jurisdictions, including fuel emission standards.

“We are happy to say we are optimistic that the clean-air agreement will finally get signed off by all the state and federal governments,” says Hibberd. “The fantastic thing was the environment minister weighed in. The ‘dieselgate’ issue is a good trigger to get people’s minds back on the agenda to work to keep the air clean.” The fact that Turnbull, a former environment minister, had also created a new portfolio for cities with Jamie Briggs at the helm was also cause for cheering. 

Birkett tweeted that his takeaway from the conference was: “Australia must regulate local nitrogen dioxide in Greg Hunt’s NCAA & huge optimism he’s thinking #OneAtmosphere.” 

Birkett coined the slogan and is behind the One Atmosphere campaign, which is based on the principle that you can’t favour one emission at the expense of another as Europe’s so-called Euro vehicle standards aimed at cutting carbon emissions have by driving a rise in NOX emissions. 

With VWgate and dieselgate drawing a wider attention to the issues, there are going to be a lot more people following Hunt and his state counterparts as they prepare new air-quality standards for Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 17, 2015 as "The fresh pinch on clean air".

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