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Volkswagen's 'Diesel Dupe': A Scandal of Public Health and Government Policy

The government should use the Volkswagen scandal to promote alternatives to both petrol and diesel cars - and save thousands of lives in the process.

The recent Volkswagen scandal - which saw the car company admit that emissions from its diesel cars were higher than previously thought - has hardly left the headlines over the last few weeks.

While public anger initially focused on the level of corporate greed and deception displayed by Volkswagen, attention is now beginning to turn to the implications for public health and government policy.

This saga is primarily a scandal of public health. Unlike petrol engines, diesel engines fail to burn away leftover nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles made up of acids, chemicals and dust. This means they contribute a lot more to air pollution which is a major cause of ill health.

It is estimated that around 500,000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution across Europe, a quarter of which are caused by diesel emissions. There is also evidence to suggest that extended exposure to NOx and particulates - as experienced by most Londoners - can exacerbate asthma and stunt growth in children.

Volkswagen's admission that it systematically cheated emissions tests therefore has big implications for our nation's health. But we should not let this deflect attention from the fact that government policy is also to blame for the growing reliance on diesel engines. In the past, governments have actively promoted the use of diesel engines. This is because they remove more carbon than petrol engines during combustion - helping the country to meet its carbon emissions targets in the process.

Successive European governments have promoted the use of diesel for almost 20 years, explicitly tolerating poorer air pollution in a trade-off to reduce carbon emissions. This growing use of diesel engines contributes towards 123,000 deaths per year (compared to less than 2000 as a result of the extra admissions from the VW scandal). Indeed, the UK is one of the worst culprits as highlighted by this government's admission that it will be 20 years late in meeting NOx emission targets.

This promotion of diesel is partly explained by the reaction of European governments to the 1997 Kyoto agreement which saw most developed countries legally obliged to reduce CO2 emissions by an average of 8% over 15 years. Decreasing the use of petrol cars and replacing them with diesel was seen as a quick way to deliver on these promises.

As a result, European governments have taxed cars based on CO2 emissions but not NOx emissions or particulates, promoted the use of diesel for public transportation systems and put in place legislation to force car producers to reduce their contribution to CO2 emissions without promoting a genuinely clean alternative. The result was that diesel cars went from 10 per cent of the total fleet in the mid 90's to around 50 per cent today. The 'diesel dupe' is therefore as much government's as it is the private sector's. They chose to take the easy way to reduce carbon emissions and ignored public health concerns in the process.

There are a number of actions the government could take to address this problem.

First, governments should focus on removing, or even reversing, the state backing of diesel. This should include changing taxes on fuel and road usage to factor in both C02 emissions and other pollutants such as NO2 and particulates, and should also include increased congestion charges on diesel cars (as promoted by the Mayor of London) with a long term aim of an outright ban (as promoted by the Mayor of Paris).

Second, policy should ensure that we do not pivot back to petrol. To do so would simply be trading lives in the future (in the form of increased CO2 emissions) for lives now (in the form of reduced NOx emissions). Instead, European countries should do what some Asian countries did in the wake of the Kyoto agreement: invest in electric and hydrogen alternatives to both diesel and petrol. This should include more government financing for research and development into the green transport sector, in a bid to attract the private sector to follow suit.

Third, given that progress in the field is already reasonably advanced - Toyota recently launched its hydrogen fuelled Mirai whilst Nissan has invested in battery operated cars such as the Leaf - governments should also be the first customers in the queue, swapping diesel fuelled public transport (busses, Lorries, trains) for greener alternatives.

The transition won't happen overnight. However, if backed by sufficient funds and political capital, it could radically speed up the shift the renewables and save lives now and in the future.

Harry Quilter-Pinner leads IPPR's work on health and wellbeing. His twitter handle is @harry_qp