Diesel engines, emissions fraud and the COP21 climate summit (AWTWNS 5 October 2015)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 5 October 2015 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Diesel engines, emissions fraud and the COP21 climate summit

5 October 2015 A World to Win News Service. Germany was supposed to be a world leader in reducing carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions, “a model for other industrialised nations.” (The New York Times, 2 October 2015) Then came the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The car company, it turns out, made and sold at least 11 million vehicles that, although marketed as low emission vehicles, actually emitted far higher levels of pollutants than stated, with onboard software designed to fool government tests.

These particular pollutants are even more immediately dangerous than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen oxides and ozone harm the lungs, causing immediate damage and lowering people’s resistance to respiratory illnesses, as well as contributing to global warming. The exhaust spewed out of the tailpipes of these diesel engine cars can be as much as 40 times the legal limit for pollutants in the U.S., where the issue was brought to light by NGO researchers.

VW seems to have committed an almost unbelievably brazen act of fraud in this case, but there are two reasons why they did it.

First, they more or less had to. In 2008 it became clear to VW that their diesel engines could not meet U.S. emission standards – which may have been meant to restrict VW’s access to the U.S. market, just as some European Union food safety standards have been accused of being a way to keep out U.S. poultry and meat products, for instance. Even if it had been technically possible for VW to meet these standards, reducing toxic exhaust gases and particles would have made their products much less fuel efficient, and therefore much less attractive to buyers. VW had invested a lot to manufacture these engines. Now it risked a drastic cutback in market share rather than the marketing coup it needed.

This posed a mortal danger to VW in its competition with its North American rivals. Its management may be fired for getting caught, but it’s unlikely that investors would have allowed them to survive a drastic loss on the company’s investment and the competitiveness its future depends on.

The second reason is that they thought they could get away with it.

That thinking was encouraged by a context of complacency with diesel emissions, especially in Western Europe, where diesel-equipped cars are very common. Some commentators have written about this as a question of European tastes, but that “taste” is a direct result of deliberate government policies.

Volkswagen is Germany’s biggest company and a major pillar of its export-oriented economy. It was founded as a government enterprise under the Nazis. Governments from the 1930s to today have always treated it in consequence of its importance for the overall functioning of monopoly capitalism in that country. Chancellor Angela Merkel, like her Social Democratic predecessor, sits on the board that sets company policies, as do regional officials, since 20 percent of VW stock is owned by Lower Saxony.

What lies behind this latest scam is not any particular German greed, but global competition between vehicle manufacturers, the nationally-based capital formations they are often central to, and the states that represent those interests. “I have no illusions,” said a long-time senior official in the German Federal Environmental Agency speaking about VW’s motives in this fraud. “It’s a war. If you don’t understand the positions of those you are fighting, you don’t have a chance.” (NYT, 2 October)

He knows that even the agency charged with protecting the environment has to take the competitiveness of German capital into account – in fact, it is obliged to accept those interests as the boundaries within which environmental protection measures could be taken.

Merkel, along with other EU leaders including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, succeeded in turning back already-agreed upon new European carbon dioxide emission standards in 2013. Her aim was to protect the German auto industry and E.On and RZE, the country’s leading energy companies.

The French government, for its own reasons, has been even more zealous about promoting and protecting diesel engines. When the country adopted the policy of making nuclear energy its main source of electrical power, the government wanted to protect the refineries owned by France’s oil giants, which play an even more central role for French capital than the car industry. The fuel used to generate electricity and diesel fuel are the same thing. Sales taxes were set to make diesel fuel substantially cheaper than regular, along with other measures to encourage people to buy diesel vehicles, even though it was known that diesel engines are more dangerous to human health and the atmosphere than standard motors. In fact, partly because a decades-long emphasis on diesel engines has given German, French and other European manufacturers a technological edge over their U.S. rivals in that field, boosting worldwide appetites for diesel engines is an important part of EU export efforts.

Just as U.S. President Barack Obama has given the go-ahead for fracking, Arctic oil drilling and other moves that are vital to the competitiveness of the U.S. oil industry and the global interests of the U.S. empire, so French President Francois Hollande has been equally active in promoting Arctic oil ventures, fracking, oil sands extraction and other environmentally disastrous moves by French oil companies like Total, along with the very aggressive world expansion programmes of French nuclear energy companies. Like in Germany, the interests of these companies, at the core of French capital, have always been and still are largely protected by the state.

These state policies, the inevitable consequence of the international competition that drives the world capitalist and imperialist system, have become so notorious that a French Green Party parliamentarian and researcher has labelled the present situation an environmental “counter-revolution” in that restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions are drastically slowing down. (Yannick Jadot, Telerama.fr Website, 3 October 2015) The cuts set for 2020-30, he calculates, will be half of those called for in 2010-20 due to galloping “energy nationalism” focused on protecting key economic sectors. He notes that the EU policies have promoted diesel motors for decades, and that the major governments have been complicit not only in setting permissive standards but also in allowing testing procedures he calls a known charade, since in Europe, as in the U.S., motor vehicle emissions are not measured under normal operating conditions and therefore tend to greatly underestimate the pollution produced. Higher fuel efficiency standards – which sell cars – are being met by turning a blind eye to that fact. (Financial Times, 25 September 2015)

The answer, the French Green politician said, is to untangle the interests of the states and the big monopolies and overturn the influence of “the lobbies”. But European countries with historically state-linked energy companies and car manufacturers, and the U.S., where this was not officially the case, act in basically the same way. For instance, GM concealed a safety problem that predictably led to many deaths, and was not harshly punished when it got caught in 2014. U.S. commentators calling for VW to be brought to its knees for its crimes didn’t apply the same standard to GM.

Crucially, no major government advocates policies to get beyond the irrational and inherently polluting transportation system that depends on people buying more and more cars.

To look at the problem in broader terms, more than 140 countries have submitted their national energy goals in preparation for the COP21 international climate change summit to be held in December in Paris. Even if they don’t act like Germany, France, the UK, the U.S., etc., have so far and instead actually try to reach their stated goals, these figures would represent a potentially catastrophic increase in global warming of 2.7 C degrees by the end of the century. In comparison, the 0.85 C increase in global average temperatures since the start of the industrial age is already wreaking havoc with the planet.

If consistent, the Green deputy’s own remarks would lead to the conclusion that the capitalist states have always represented the interests of nationally-based finance capital, especially in the monopoly capitalist countries sitting atop the world imperialist system. The market would overrule any attempt to act any other way.

This is the situation that people enraged by the present and foreseeable destruction of the global environment must face up to.

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