SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 200 July/August 2016

Diesel polluter impunity

Car manufacturers that systematically cheated emissions tests have yet to face any legal action in the European Union. Volkswagen was the first to hit the headlines in September last year after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the giant German car company had violated the USA’s Clean Air Act with deadly diesel emissions. Volkswagen now expects to pay more than $10 billion to settle.

It soon became clear that Volkswagen was not alone. BMW, Ford, Fiat, Honda, Toyota and at least 14 other companies were found to have been cheating. However, VW Group boss, Matthias Müller, said that no compensation would be paid to UK customers. Meanwhile, death and destruction from diesel pollution and greenhouse gas emissions continue.

As Socialism Today reported at the time, between 2009 and 2015 Volkswagen used ‘defeat’ software in its cars, specifically designed to pass the EPA’s regulations by reducing emissions during testing. On-the-road emissions were up to 30 times higher. Eleven million Volkswagen vehicles were involved worldwide. Subsequently, Volkswagen’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, resigned and on 28 September faced criminal prosecution in Germany for alleged fraud. Volkswagen engineers who rigged the tests blamed pressure from Winterkorn. In October, the head of Volkswagen in the US, Michael Horn, told Congress that he knew the company was rigging emissions testing as early as 2014.

The car industry had first lobbied for laboratory emissions testing under conditions that "often bore little relation to reality", declared a Financial Times editorial on 6 June. Then, in a "flagrant abuse of a deficient system" car manufacturers started "gaming the rules", exploiting the testing environment which they had forced into place, making a "mockery of their intentions" ever since.

Nine months later, regulators in the EU "have to date taken no legal action against any of the carmakers", notes a new report called The Dirty Thirty. Analysing the 30 most-polluting cars, the report shows that regulators have not scrutinised whether these models used illegal defeat devices "despite strong evidence that they did". The UK’s regulators approved nine of the 30, while Germany and France approved seven each.

The report, by Transport and Environment (a European NGO), shows that national governments, not the regulators, are to blame. "Rather than taking action to clean up the mess and enforce the rules", it says governments "appear to accept manufacturers’ bogus justifications for the high emissions", arguing that EU law is ambiguous, even though it clearly outlaws defeat devices. The report goes on to say that national testing regulators are failing to implement the law "because they lack independence" from their national governments.

Each government defends its own industry, as any good capitalist government would. As a consequence, the crimes against the environment go unpunished – such as the output of nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution, which contributes to perhaps half of the seven million annual deaths the World Health Organisation attributes to air pollution.

As wildfires raged in California last year, Socialism Today observed that "it is probably unlikely" that Volkswagen executives in the USA would join California’s latter-day version of the chain gang – convicts recruited into fighting the wildfires. After all, "arsonists are not enlisted". (VW: Driving Environmental Destruction)

Transport produces roughly a quarter of both the UK and the USA’s greenhouse gas emissions, official figures show. These emissions are essentially ‘arson’ on a global scale, and car manufacturers have been caught throwing petrol on the flames. The sun’s rays on our solar-heated planet are focused like a giant magnifying glass by the big oil and transport corporations’ emissions on the earth’s surface, burning fires so large they can be seen from space.

May marked the thirteenth consecutive month that the global monthly temperature record was broken, according to two US record keepers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Wildfires currently burn in ten US states, forcing evacuations in at least three and a state of emergency in New Mexico. Authorities fear a repeat of the Fort McMurray wildfire which destroyed up to 20% of the Canadian city. Drought-ravaged California has suffered 1,800 wildfires since the beginning of the year, exacerbated by this year’s powerful El Niño which is now ebbing.

At the time of writing, 1,200 Californian firefighters face a wildfire dubbed the Sherpa fire, as record-shattering temperatures of up to 49°C produce 100-metre-high walls of flame. Convicts comprise half the total Californian firefighting force. Volkswagen’s CEO, Winterkorn, is still being investigated. Its US chief, Horn, suddenly left the company in March. He is named in a class action lawsuit and "really wants to get out fast, not just out of Volkswagen, but out of America". If he joins Winterkorn in Germany, Forbes magazine muses, he will be out of reach of US justice, "as long as we disregard the use of drones for the moment". (Forbes, 10 March) So no firefighting for him.

By November 2015, Volkswagen reported a loss in profits and was no longer the world’s biggest car manufacturer – the EPA had done its duty and nobbled a competitor to the US car industry. The German capitalists are striking back, however, at Italy’s Fiat and the EU, demanding that both tighten the regulatory environment. The Financial Times demands that the EU stops car companies from "shopping around for lenient treatment" from different countries, that it strengthens the testing regime and uncovers "the full extent of the abuses".

It wants a level playing field. But both the Financial Times and the Transport and Environment NGO fail to mention that the EU Commission, comprised of representatives of each national government in the EU, sided with the car manufacturers by changing the rules. This meant that car companies could get away with double the previous legal emissions limit until 2019, and then 50% over until 2021. The European parliament voted 323 votes to 317 against the rule change, and declared it illegal, but the MEPs were powerless to overturn the undemocratic EU Commission. (Guardian, 3 February)

The complicity of the EU and of nation states in the desperate, destructive struggle for company profits, which lies behind the defeat device, demonstrates that the only solution is to remove the profit motive. The Volkswagen scandal is not simply about the incarceration of a few criminal CEOs. The multinational companies must be placed in the hands of the state through socialist nationalisation – in contrast to the bail-out of the banks during the 2008 financial crisis. This would need to be under democratically organised workers’ control, taking into account consumers’ needs and sustainable production.

Despite decades of conferences and summits to discuss global warming, and dire warnings by the International Panel on Climate Change, even the notion of an international plan to immediately halt the production of diesel and petrol-driven vehicles and implement a rapid conversion to electricity is just a distant dream. There are no technical impediments. Capitalism is capable of acting rapidly if faced with a mass revolt which threatens its survival. But a mass movement is needed that goes further and implements a socialist, democratic plan of production across the planet. Ending the anarchy of the market is the only long-term solution.

Pete Mason

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