William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Thomas White


“Clean Diesel.” This was the tagline of a significant advertising campaign that Volkswagen (“VW”) debuted in 2008. These advertisements attempted to counter the notion that diesel engines are dirty and polluted the air. It featured older women in Volkswagens discussing tales of what they knew about diesel engines (a play off the phrase “old wives tales”). At the time of airing, few could have predicted what was to come for VW and their eventual diesel engine scandal, the fallout of which is still ongoing at the time of writing this Note. As this Note will show, the myth of the clean diesel went beyond VW’s campaign and instead represented a mindset that contributed to an ongoing health crisis in Germany. A crisis that Germany’s current policies are not up to the task of solving.

Even before this ad campaign, the diesel engine seemed to offer a solution to one of the significant environmental problems of the century: reducing the carbon footprint of motor vehicles. Much like the campaign described above, consumers were consistently told by automakers that diesel is both more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly while not sacrificing performance. However, this façade began to crack when VW was found to have installed devices manipulating the emissions of their diesel-powered vehicles. Consumers were now becoming aware of what climate scientists had been stating for decades: diesel emissions are high in nitrogen dioxides (“NO2”), a gas which can lead to many respiratory issues, including cancer and asthma, if a person is exposed to it in concentrated amounts. Many countries in western Europe, which contain a much higher number of cars powered by diesel engines than the United States, have begun to roll out plans to fight back against these environmental effects by proposing bans of diesel-powered cars and their future sale. Unfortunately, Germany is not one of these countries and has yet to release a legitimate plan to stop the production and use of diesel-powered cars.

To begin, this Note will address the impact diesel emissions have on the respiratory health of those living in areas with large amounts of diesel cars. Additionally, it will analyze the approaches countries within the European Union (“E.U.”) have taken in response to this crisis and discuss their application to Germany. As of right now, the solutions offered by the German government and their automakers are not sufficient. This Note will also advocate that the German government needs to end the favorable policies in place for diesel engines and instead motivate its automakers through legislation to alter their production and development with a focus on cleaner energy models. Since the areas with the highest levels of NO2 are in inner cities, this Note will advocate for the banning of all diesel engines in these regions of Germany within the next few years. As intrusive as this may be, the importance of the respiratory health of German citizens must take precedence. After these initial city bans, Germany can look at the improvement in local air quality and then roll it out for the country at large. This countrywide ban would dramatically reduce the amount of NO2 in the air and begin the slow process of improving air quality.

In solidarity with other countries in the E.U., Germany should release a plan comparable to that of other major countries in the E.U. All of this is feasible as Germany has a large number of resources and influence within the automotive world. Importantly, many of the automakers that produce the vehicles currently releasing copious amounts of NO2 are at home in Germany. This fact raises another issue: the legislative decisions made by the German government seem to be influenced by what is best for the automotive industry, not by what is best for the environment. There is no reason to believe that Germany, with its resources and innovative automakers, cannot lead the way in a revolution of more environmentally friendly vehicles, which feature both hybrid and electric technologies. At a minimum, Germany should advocate for the removal of the current emission standards allowing diesel cars to output more NOx (nitrogen oxide + nitrogen dioxide) than comparable gasoline engines. If diesel engines cannot meet the same emission standards as their gasoline counterparts, they should not be allowed on the road.

To fully grasp the situation, this Note will address how diesel became so popular within Europe. Next, this Note will look at the effect the rise of diesel had on the air quality in Europe and more specifically Germany. After a brief analysis of the VW diesel scandal. and how it motivated other countries to make substantial legislative changes, this Note will contrast the differences between E.U. and U.S. emission standards and discuss the related policies being promulgated by other nations within the E.U. Finally, this Note will argue that the current plans Germany has in place are inadequate and advocate for policies that would protect both the environment and the respiratory health of German citizens.

This Note is focused mainly on air quality and its effect on human health. It does not attempt to make an argument concerning diesel vehicles and their contribution to the climate crisis. There are negative externalities related to the use of any internal combustion engine, whether it be gasoline or diesel. Thus, in this Note, diesel will only be considered for its negative impact on human health and air quality and not its relation to the ever-growing greenhouse effect and global warming. Also worth noting, this Note will discuss the use of passenger vehicles, and is not intending to argue that large commercial trucks should be subject to the same level of regulation.