In 2015 car manufacturer Volkswagen owned up to cheating tests on polluting emissions. Unfortunately, not being a motoring buff, I wasn’t aware of this when my husband and I bought our VW camper van a couple of years ago.
Even though we didn’t know about the so-called ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, buying our VW wasn’t an entirely guilt-free decision. As a cyclist I’m very much aware of toxic air in the capital, and we both knew that pollution from cars is linked to respiratory diseases and thousands of early deaths in London each year. And, of course, carbon dioxide (C02) is thought to be a significant factor in global climate change.
It’s now estimated that Volkswagen installed ‘defeat devices’ in 11 million vehicles sold worldwide between mid-2007 and 2015. These defeat devices are a type of software which reduces toxic emissions from cars but, misleadingly, only under test conditions. Because the device adversely affects overall performance, the software switches itself off when the car rolls off the testing line.
You could argue that most drivers realise that there’s a significant difference between vehicle manufacturers’ reported test data and real world performance. Does it really matter? Well, global targets for reductions in harmful emissions are there for good reason; to assist coordinated planning and monitoring to reduce adverse health impacts in the short-term and – ultimately – to safeguard conditions necessary for human survival in the long-term. If car manufacturers manipulate test results then not only are we all being deprived of opportunities to make meaningful decisions, but the collective impact of corporate economy with the truth could drastically increase the odds of future catastrophe.
Regulatory bodies can take action where businesses have failed to achieve the legal standards required of them as corporate entities – imposing fines or sanctions. But national law varies from country to country so what is illegal in one jurisdiction may not be so in another. And regulatory bodies may differ considerably in their zeal, and resources, to pursue corporate breaches.
Authorities in the US have extracted $25 billion in fines, penalties and restitution from Volkswagen for the 580,000 supposedly ‘clean’ diesel vehicles sold to American citizens. In Europe, where 8 million such vehicles were sold, Germany is the only country to take legal action to date. Volkswagen was fined €1 billion (£880 million) earlier this year by German authorities for the ‘impermissible software function’ breaching diesel emission regulations. The UK government has not followed suit.
Do people like me have any power to hold global corporations accountable for their environmental impact? Clearly it’s rarely, if ever, viable for individuals to sue corporations. But legal professionals are now coordinating a British civil action against Volkswagen to address what Gareth Pope, Group Litigation Lawyer with law firm Slater and Gordon, calls: “one of the largest corporate deceits on UK consumers”.
Slater and Gordon suggest three reasons why VW owners should consider joining the group claim for damages: firstly, that VW owners should take a stand, holding Volkswagen accountable to demonstrate that corporate behaviour of this nature is not acceptable to consumers; secondly, that challenging false claims about eco credentials is essential to protect the environment; and thirdly, that resale values of affected vehicles are likely to be compromised, making owners financially worse off.
Around 1.2 million of the vehicles fitted with defeat devices were sold in the UK. And over 100,000 owners of affected vehicles in England and Wales have signed up to sue Volkswagen, with a deadline of 26 October 2018 for joining the claim.
Fortunately, our California camper isn’t one of the vehicles fitted with a defeat device. Still, I trust Volkswagen quite a lot less than I did before. So I’m watching the group litigation with interest. Is it too optimistic to hope that a high-profile legal challenge will help focus the attention of manufacturers, and governments, on speeding up progress towards a genuinely sustainable vehicle manufacturing industry?