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The dark side of diesel

By Dr Anthony Horton

It’s fair to say that the Volkswagen diesel emissions revelations have captured the world’s attention. As a scientist with a background in air pollution monitoring and management I must admit that the amount of attention the issue has received intrigues me – from the perspectives of both the media reporting of the issue and of course the public reaction.

I’m particularly interested in the media’s reporting of the issue in terms of what a test method is, what is emitted under test conditions and what an emission standard or limit is. I see the way it has been reported as a public demonstration of the scientific method-questioning the way something is, testing/analysing it, comparing the results against a standard and determining what that means. From my perspective these steps are fundamental, and the more the public can see why scientists do what they do, why they do it and the part science plays in society the better. However this is not really the place for a lesson in the scientific method. Instead, I would like to look at diesel emissions from another perspective.

Diesel emissions from vehicles are comprised of a number of pollutants, with the most significant being nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates. The latter were the first pollutants emitted from vehicle exhaust to be identified as toxic in 1993 by a team from Harvard University in their groundbreaking Six Cities Study which involved more than 8000 adults over more than 14 years.

The study’s findings were significant because the mortality risk in “dirtier” cities (cities that are more heavily polluted) was strongly associated with fine particles, and life expectancy in these cities was reportedly 2-3 years less than “cleaner” cities. The findings also gave rise to new air quality standards which have in turn progressively lowered particulate concentrations and improved health outcomes over the past two decades.

In the time since the Six Cities Study, hundreds of studies have given rise to similar conclusions. One study in the UK estimated that nearly 30,000 people are killed each year from exposure to particulates (more than obesity and alcohol combined and 10 times the number of people killed on roads). The UK Government Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution estimates that it is a factor in an additional 200,000 deaths.

In June 2012, The World Health Organisation (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that diesel exhaust was a probable human carcinogen, based on sufficient evidence that personal exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.

Head of the IARC Monographs Section Dr Kurt Straif stated at the announcement that the air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances, and that outdoor air is a leading cause of cancer deaths from an environmental perspective. The scientists conducting the evaluation reviewed in excess of 1000 academic papers on polluted air and small particles in that air. The IARC also reported that in 2010 air pollution was responsible for 223,000 deaths in lung cancer patients worldwide.

France has the highest percentage of diesel cars of any European country’s vehicle fleet as a result of successive Governments subsidising diesel fuel to such an extent that it is cheaper than petrol. In March this year, an increase in air pollution resulted in Paris being the most polluted city in the world for a short time, with the smog being so thick that many of the city’s landmarks including the Eiffel Tower were invisible. In addition, the Volkswagen revelations have increased the pressure on the French Government to act on vehicle emissions and the associated air pollution.

A car free day was implemented in Paris last week (September 27) at the suggestion of the Paris Without Cars group. The car free day was limited to approximately one third of the city, covering an area between Bastille and the Champs Elysees and the outer Bios de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes between 11 and 6pm. In the remainder of the city, cars were allowed to travel at 20 km/hour. Despite the limited scope, Elisabeth Pagnac who lives in a tower block in the east of the city reported the dramatic difference in the skyline and commented that it had never been as blue and was very different without the layer of pollution that typically hangs in the air.

In addition to implementing the car free day, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo has made a vow to end diesel use on the city by 2020 and promote less car usage and cleaner vehicle. She also plans to extend car free areas further along the Seine River.

Regardless of the extent to which the decision to implement a car free day was or wasn’t influenced by the Volkswagen revelations, I think that implementing such a day was a bold decision. As an Australian I can’t help but wonder how many Mayors would have the courage to do the same in their cities. As a scientist I wonder about three points-1) whether the Volkswagen revelations and in particular discussions on the emissions will cause Regulatory Authorities around the world to rethink/ revise the process they use to assess/audit emissions sources (of all types, not just cars) and any associated data, 2) whether the revelations will cause people to pause and consider the full impacts (eg. environmental, health and economic) of their potential purchase as part of their buying decision process, and 3) the future of diesel vehicles.


rWdMeee6_pe About the author: Anthony Horton holds a PhD in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours and a Diploma of Carbon Management. He has a track record of delivering customised solutions in Academia, Government, the Mining Industry and Consulting based on the latest wisdom and his scientific background and experience in Climate/Atmospheric Science and Air Quality. Anthony’s work has been published in internationally recognised scientific journals and presented at international and national conferences, and he is currently on the Editorial Board of the Journal Nature Environment and Pollution Technology. Anthony also blogs on his own site, The Climate Change Guy.



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  1. Wally

    In Australia we have an abundance of LPG we should have the majority of vehicles in our major cities running on LPG. And LPG pricing should come under closer scrutiny, the practise of pegging it at 50-60 cents a litre less than ULP is wrong. If petrol prices varied by up to 70 cents a litre there would be a public outrage and most probably a royal commission.

  2. Jexpat

    Clean diesel is like clean coal: it doesn’t exist.

    What’s impressive is how long automakers have gotten away with that con.

  3. totaram

    Corporations will do “whatever it takes” to reward their shareholders. Any problems with that? The answer is “tighter regulation” but don’t you know that is all “red-tape”? Ronald Reagan put it in a nutshell: The government won’t solve the problem. The government IS the problem. Got it? Meanwhile, Google the shareholding of VW and Porsche and related entities and figure out what is going on.
    Please join the dots.

    Meanwhile the neoliberal juggernaut rolls on.

  4. Wally


    “Corporations will do “whatever it takes” to reward their shareholders”

    What century are you living in?
    All companies do nowadays is fill executives pockets with cash.
    If they cared about shareholders they wouldn’t do crap that cuts the share price in half.

    And the neoliberal juggernaut is paid for by short changing the return on shares owned by workers super funds.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    One wonders how many others lie when it comes to carbon emissions reductions? The second question one must ask, are our standards on emssion as high as the rest of the world. Seems they are not, as the industry complained and were listened to here.

  6. John Armour

    What’s the longevity of particulates and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere I wonder.

    In relative terms I’d imagine carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to be orders of magnitude worse.

    There could be an upside to all this in that conversion to electric transport will now take place more quickly. Unfortunately, a lot more fossil fuel has to be burnt to get us to “the other side”.

    That’s a bridge we might have already have burned.

    What a shame we hadn’t done it 100 years ago.

  7. John Armour


    I know what totaram means, but you raise a good point.

    It’s sort of amusing that the government is spending millions on a RC to see if they can catch a few crooked “union thugs” dipping into the till for what amounts to “beer money” while pricks like the former ANZ boss and the Qantas bloke fill their boots with millions and there’s bugger-all ordinary shareholders can do about it whilst ever the institutions control the AGMs with their proxies.

  8. Wally

    John Armour

    “most significant being nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates. The latter were the first pollutants emitted from vehicle exhaust to be identified as toxic”

    From this article and my limited knowledge on diesel emissions I believe it is the particulates that are the main problem as they are carcinogens. A lot of new vehicles have particulate filters on the exhaust but they are troublesome, if they start the burn cycle when the vehicle is off road they can start grass fires very easily. This has happened with electrical lines workers trucks in rural areas and considering the number of diesel vehicles that are used regularly off road there is plenty of potential bush fire risk out there..

    About 25 years ago the Japanese were involved in a project in Victoria that tried to create liquid fuel from brown coal, it was hailed to be the solution to our future fuel needs art the time, the project failed because of the carcinogens created. I worked on a project in 1989-90 with instrument technicians who had just left the coal project and they were very concerned about the substances they had been working with and associated health problems.

  9. John Armour

    Thanks Wally. That was very interesting.

  10. totaram


    If the major shareholders of a company don’t like the way the company is run, they can change it – or do you disagree? All this cheating has been going on for years and made heaps of money for everyone. Just because the share price now fell, isn’t so bad if you add it all up. And, what if they had got away with it? And Herr Winterkorn has left with a big payout, too. All very cosy. They’ll find some junior software engineer to send to jail. Don’t worry, it’s the “too big to fail syndrome”.

  11. Wally


    A major shareholder can make changes, they are normally on the board of directors and receive directors fees as well as profits from their shares. Some of them CEO’s in particular receive much more money from salary and perks than from their shareholding but the majority of shares are owned by smaller stakeholders who have very limited input and/or control of the companies activities.

    We are probably both correct but looking at the situation from different perspectives and the impact share price drops can have on different investors is significant,

    I am certain investors who have negative geared their portfolio are not very impressed with VW at the moment, if the bank force them to sell their shares because they don’t hold enough equity this episode could cost them a lot of money. On the other hand if you are not forced to sell and hang on to the shares you have lost nothing.

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