Germany’s ‘diesel summit’ Wednesday (2 August) promised to make diesel summit less dirty through software updates–but more needs to be done, write Greg Archer and Julia Poliscanova.
Greg Archer and Julia Poliscanova work on clean vehicles at the sustainable transport NGO Transport & Environment.
Summoning the heads of Germany’s carmakers to a ‘diesel summit’ could never give a positive glow and banish the dark clouds created by cities proposing diesel car bans.
The planned German renaissance of diesel cars hit a roadblock last week with the shocking disclosure that its carmakers had been involved in cartel-like behaviour since the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, carmakers are still attempting to peddle the lie that existing diesel cars can be “clean” just through upgrading software or tweaks to the emissions control system. The unfortunate truth is that a typical diesel car made from 2010-2015 produces 10 times more nitrogen oxides than a gasoline model.
A new Euro 6 model still produces on average eight times more. Even if software and other fixes deliver a 25% improvement, they are very far from “clean” cars. A much needed, technology neutral, Euro 7 regulation requiring diesels and gasoline to emit the same would add significant costs to diesels and limit them to a luxury niche.
So what is the solution? Firstly, spending around €65 per vehicle to upgrade software can deliver meaningful short-term improvements. We need every dirty diesel Euro 5 and 6 car in Europe to go through this process – around 35 million cars in total in the EU – stacking up a collective bill of around €2.3 billion.
This is a good investment as it will have an impact on high city air pollution levels that kill 430,000 people annually. But this alone is not sufficient to fix our toxic air. During periods of dangerous pollution, city diesel bans will still be needed so we can instantaneously reduce the numbers poisoned in exhaust smog.
No expensive fix will make diesel clean, and hardware upgrades on car exhaust controls costing €1,000 per vehicle will simply burn money in an attempt to make diesel less dirty. Instead, the car industry should agree to fund city air pollution clean-up programmes and sustainable mobility solutions that are far more cost-effective in delivering short-term improvements.
But the most important step is to stop investing in a technology that has no future. Half of new cars in Europe are diesel only because the fuel and vehicles receive generous tax breaks. Remove these and the market share would fall to nearer 5% – the sales figure in the rest of the world.
Instead of trying to make existing dirty diesels clean, countries and carmakers should invest in zero emission solutions. With battery prices tumbling and the range growing, sales of electric cars are forecast to rocket to 20-25% of the market by 2025, according to several carmakers.
The launch of the Tesla Model 3 has made Germany’s carmakers look asleep at the wheel. To wake them from their slumber, the fifth key solution is to require carmakers to invest more in infrastructure so that the growing market is not limited by the lack of places to charge. That could help Europe’s dozy carmakers finally start to compete with their Chinese competitors, which are now gearing up to export cheap electric cars into Europe. If this happens, the job losses arising from the declining diesel share will be compounded by the export of jobs to China, which could supply a fifth of Europe’s cars within a decade.
Money can only be spent once. Burning money to make diesel less dirty is not the solution. Governments and carmakers should invest the future while taking steps to cost-effectively tackle the toxic legacy of Europe’s expensive experiment with diesel cars.