Energy

‘Dieselgate’ Scandal May Have Caused 5,000 Premature Deaths a Year in Europe

A study by Norwegian and Austrian organizations estimates the extra air pollution that resulted from the scandal led to nearly 5,000 premature deaths across Europe in 2013, before the cheating was discovered.

The costs of the diesel emissions cheating scandal that has enveloped leading automakers is usually reported in financial terms. Now, European researchers have put a human price tag on the scandal.

A study by Norwegian and Austrian organizations estimates the extra air pollution that resulted from the scandal led to nearly 5,000 premature deaths across Europe in 2013, before the cheating was discovered. Those deaths “could have been avoided if diesel limits had been achieved also in on-road driving,” the researchers reported this week — and higher death rates are expected to continue until those vehicles are replaced.

Diesel engines generally run more efficiently than gasoline-powered motors and produce less planet-warming carbon dioxide as a result. But they produce more nitrogen oxides, which help produce smog and soot — which can aggravate lung and heart problems.

In the new study, scientists at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis found diesels in the 28 European Union countries, along with Norway and Switzerland, pumped out between four and seven times more nitrogen oxides than believed before the scandal. They estimated nearly 10,000 people succumbed to illnesses fueled by small-particle pollution and ground-level ozone resulting from diesel emissions.

“About half of these cases could have been avoided if these vehicles would in real driving emit no more than the EU limit value,” they wrote.

The findings were published this week in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters. The highest number of estimated deaths were in Italy, with 1,250 — largely due to an emissions “hot spot” in the country’s heavily industrialized north. Germany and France, where diesel use is more common than other countries, followed with 960 and 680.

A previous study estimated as many as 38,000 people a year may die of pollution-related deaths as a result of the cheating, including about 10 percent of Europe’s ozone pollution deaths.

The emissions scandal erupted in 2015, with the discovery that Volkswagen engineers had outfitted diesel-powered vehicles with computer software that could tell whether the car was on the road or on a test stand. If it was on the road, the car’s pollution controls were disabled to boost performance.

Volkswagen had been promoting a line of "clean diesel" vehicles that it said had solved that problem — but the scheme unraveled when an American laboratory found real-world tailpipe emissions were far higher than the exhaust produced in a lab.

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The resulting investigations led to criminal charges against several Volkswagen executives and billions of dollars in fines and penalties against the German-based automaker — as well as similar allegations against other auto giants, including Renault, Daimler-Benz, and Mitsubishi, which has admitted to manipulating fuel-economy tests. Renault has denied it used software to rig emissions tests, while Daimler has recalled 3 million diesel-powered vehicles for emissions improvements “to reassure drivers of diesel cars and to strengthen confidence in diesel technology.”

“There are signs that diesel penetration in Europe is now going down, partly as a result of the Dieselgate scandal,” the authors wrote. “Dieselgate may also have the effect of expediting the transition to electric vehicles and other alternative fuel modes of transport.”

Automakers Volvo and Jaquar Land Rover announced this year they will no longer introduce solely gas or diesel-powered vehicles by 2030 and 2020 respectively, turning instead to fully electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.

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