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Dumping Diesel Is Bad for the Planet

Dumping Diesel Is Bad for the Planet

Wednesday, 10 April, 2019 - 11:15
File this under “unintended consequences.” The anti-diesel campaign that followed the 2016 discovery that Volkswagen AG used software cheats to understate its cars’ nitrogen oxide emissions has led to a rise in carbon dioxide, which has a greater impact on the climate.

In 2017, CO2 emissions from new cars were higher than the previous year for the first time since 2010, the European Environment Agency reported this week.

There is a simple explanation: Diesel-gate broke in 2016. Environmental groups started attacking the fuel, and cities considered banning vehicles that use it from their streets. The market took fright. In 2017, European consumers bought more gasoline than diesel cars for the first time since 2009.

The problem: the vehicles emit 10 percent to 40 percent more CO2 than their diesel counterparts.

The trade-off between diesel’s NOx emissions and gasoline’s CO2 isn’t a straightforward matter of calculating the damage from both and picking the lesser evil. The former causes more local and immediate damage to human health in the form of respiratory diseases and cancer. The latter is more dangerous because of its contribution to climate change.

Reducing the number of diesel vehicles on the road and replacing them with gasoline-powered ones is a policy that has immediate health benefits – at the expense of future generations, which will have to deal with the ever-increasing effects of climate change.

The hype cycle set off by the Volkswagen scandal effectively imposed this policy on governments whether they welcomed it, as France did, or resisted it, as Germany tried by fighting the diesel vehicle bans.

Consumers have reacted dramatically. In Germany in 2018, diesel vehicle registrations fell 16.9 percent after a 13.2 percent drop the previous year. Residual values have plummeted and gasoline is king – because, for all the talk of the industry pivoting to electric powertrains, the choice between gas and diesel is still binary.

Last year, only 3.8 percent of newly registered vehicles in Germany had a hybrid powertrain and 1 percent were fully electric. These vehicles’ combined share of the country’s advanced and affluent car market isn’t rising fast enough to make up for the steep decrease in diesel registrations.

On Friday, the European Automobile Manufacturing Association responded to the EEA’s findings by calling for increased government and European Union investment in the charging infrastructure for electrical vehicles. It said the network would need to expand 20-fold in the next 12 years to accommodate the move to electric power. Though there have been a few private initiatives to roll out such networks, a chicken-and-egg problem hampers their development: People won’t buy more EVs until they can be conveniently charged.

That appears to be a clear-cut case for government investment. Instead European governments have preferred to set ambitious sales targets for electric vehicles. But a report by Transport & Environment, an environmental lobby group, said France, Germany, and Austria are likely to sell about half the number of EVs they targeted by 2020 because of the deficiencies in the charging infrastructure.

Fixing the charging infrastructure is still unlikely to persuade consumers to ditch their gasoline cars immediately in favor of EVs. The vehicles’ short range, long charging times and high prices make them suitable only for early adopters rather than most drivers. Until these obstacles are overcome, campaigns against one type of hydrocarbon fuel can only favor another type of hydrocarbon fuel. The hype only leads to senseless environmental trade-offs.

What policymakers need to do is leave diesel and gasoline alone – the current emissions standards are stringent enough for now – and prioritize the development of both the charging infrastructure and EVs’ batteries. That will require more spending than regulatory tweaks, but the effect will be less ambiguous.


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