Volkswagen Scandal

2002 Volkswagen Bug by Marcus Balchar \ CC BY-SA 2.0

Volkswagen's managers, its market value and its global reputation have all taken a big hit since it was revealed that 11 million of the company's 'clean diesel' cars were actually polluting up to 40 times more Nitrous Oxides than the legal limit. It has been estimated that the extra pollution from those vehicles is akin to the NOx emissions produced within the United Kingdom's transport, electrical, industrial and agricultural sectors combined.

In the wake of the scandal, blame has been placed on everything from the failure of de-regulation to the avaricious corporate culture. These are all important considerations, but to what extent are we missing the point when we — the drivers of those so-called 'clean-diesels' — absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing? 

Don’t get me wrong, what VW did was nothing short of criminal (I would be remiss if I did not declare that I too have signed on to one of the many class action lawsuits launched against VW). However, do we not do ourselves a deep disservice if we pin our society’s unsustainable practices in transportation all on the producers? What about the consumers?

Like millions of other VW owners, I too had a moment of fury when I found out my 'clean diesel' was not so clean after all. I felt duped. Suddenly, this proud possession of mine — which I thought was helping me contain my ecological footprint — became a deceitful polluting machine designed to cheat the system. Yet, as the shock wore off I started to feel a sense of responsibility for the ecological catastrophe that is now encapsulated by the words ‘Volkswagen scandal.’ Before we go on heaping all the blame on this one ‘bad apple’ we would do well to take a deep long look in the mirror to assess our own culpability.     

Canadians are not driving less, but rather hoping that their purchases of cleaner vehicles will help reduce their environmental footprint.

There’s a palpable assumption that everything will be okay again if we just implement a more robust regulatory structure and a genuine corporate culture of social responsibility to ensure this kind of scam doesn’t happen again. But clearly those assumptions do not account for the fact that nearly every one of us in Canada is producing an unacceptably high volume of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on a daily basis regardless of how 'clean' and 'green' our vehicles may be. After all, we are amongst the worst per capita emitters of GHGs in the world (the worst according to the World Resources Institute, who includes land use change and forestry in their calculations). Transportation is the biggest culprit in Canada, with the sector contributing nearly a quarter of all domestic emissions. Canadians are not driving less, but rather hoping that their purchases of cleaner vehicles will help reduce their environmental footprint.

We know now that VW’s notion of ‘clean diesel’ was a false promise — but should we ever have bought into that crazy idea in the first place? It’s diesel – a fuel directly derived from petroleum. Sure, the sulphur is largely removed from the fuel, but there is an inevitable production of pollutants resulting from diesel compression. Like the absurd concept of ‘clean coal’ we should have known that “clean” was defined in relative terms. Yet more importantly we should have been thinking more critically about our attempt to consume our way into a smaller ecological footprint.

Like other VW diesel owners, I now contemplate my next vehicle purchase with a skeptic’s eye towards potential greenwashing. But it would be a shame if the lesson from this scandal ended there — it would be much better if this whole mess forced us to own up to our own role in contributing to climate change and pollution and let us to think twice about our excessive consumption of transportation.

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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