SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 193 November 2015

VW: driving environmental destruction

Caught red-handed. Volkswagen – declared the world’s largest car manufacturer in July – fitted ‘defeat’ devices which cheated emissions tests in eleven million of its vehicles. These vehicles produce up to 40 times more NOx (nitrogen oxides) pollution than legally allowed. Under a cover of ‘greenwash’ – the promotion of a fake green gloss on essentially dirty technologies – these cars, sold as ‘clean diesel’, produced the equivalent of the UK’s "yearly combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture" every year, the Guardian estimated. (23 September)

NOx pollutants such as NO2 cause acid rain and deadly respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. One half of UK and USA emissions of NO2 came from vehicles in 2013. In the world’s urban areas, where more than half the global population lives, vehicles are thought to account for at least half of air pollution. In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared air pollution the world’s biggest killer, estimating seven million deaths. As a rough average, then, half of these deaths are caused by fossil fuel vehicles.

The annual death toll from vehicles is increased by the 1.24 million fatal accidents on roads worldwide. (WHO 2010) So that is nearly five million deaths a year directly from vehicles. By comparison, military deaths during the second world war averaged roughly four million a year (although civilian deaths were twice that).

The other important member of the NOx family is N2O, a greenhouse gas. Per weight, N2O produces almost 300 times the atmospheric warming of carbon dioxide. Cars also produce the greenhouse gas CO2 – around a quarter of total output in the UK and USA. The Volkswagen scandal raises important issues for socialists about public ownership, the nature and planning of transport, and the control of pollution and global warming.

Michael Horn, Volkswagen’s top US executive, said his staff informed him that the US Environmental Protection Agency could check for defeat devices, but that he did not know Volkswagen was using such software. We are expected to believe he had no clue why he was being warned. Horn’s denials came a few days after USA Today hit the headlines when it asked Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, about the banking collapse. "Why didn’t anybody go to jail? Should somebody have gone to jail?" "Yep", replied Bernanke. (4 October, Video, 4:19)

Bernanke has just written a memoir but claims his focus was on companies not individuals. A financial firm, he claims, is "a legal fiction… It’s not a person. You can’t put a financial firm in jail". But surely one point of incarceration is to place someone under the direct supervision of the state, preventing criminal activity. And public ownership places a firm directly in the hands of the state.

Socialist nationalisation (as opposed to the kind of nationalisation of the banks seen in 2008) would eliminate the profit motive, and bring the company under the day-to-day supervision of elected representatives of the workers, whose interests are compatible with the consumers. Nationalisation should be the immediate action in the Volkswagen case. Compensation should be means tested, so that individual shareholders (like pensioners in the UK, or the so-called ‘mom and pop’ investors in the US) receive adequate compensation while the bosses find themselves facing stringent tests to prove they need ready cash. The company executives could be removed from their jobs without compensation.

Volkswagen put €6.5bn aside to cover for claims, and threatens restructuring and 20,000 job losses. As usual, under capitalism, the workers suffer. Nationalisation is far more onerous to the capitalist class than the jailing of a few of their peers – where they practice golf in open jails, meet old friends and write their biographies, while plotting their return to public life. Public ownership challenges capitalism at its root, especially if it is part of a socialist plan of production.

But the issue is much wider than just Volkswagen and its brands, such as Audi, Seat and Skoda. Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroën, Fiat, Volvo and others have been found to emit substantially higher levels of pollution, the Guardian reported. Peter Mock, one of the team which exposed the scandal, is quoted: "There was enough data and people knew for a long time. The emissions in cities have not gone down like we expected and they could have been reduced a long time ago". (30 September) Now Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi have been added to the long list of miscreants.

There could hardly be a clearer socialist argument in favour of the nationalisation of all major car manufacturers. They have little concern for the environment – they should have moved wholesale to electric vehicles decades ago. Critics have long complained of token research, continual delays, cancelled projects. The fossil fuel vehicle should be in a museum, and the failure of the industry amounts to criminal negligence. Over half of UK motorists (53%) are considering an electric car or hybrid, the Institute of the Motor Industry reported, saying: "the level of demand shown in this survey is astonishing and requires a response from government". (AutoExpress, 9 October)

It is not that astonishing, however. People care about the planet. It is the car industry, this showcase of private ownership, icon of capitalist development, which suffers a long-term systemic failure – caused by competition, the ‘free market’ – which prevents the industry from rapidly moving to carbon-free technologies despite the deaths and dangers from pollution and global warming. Only government intervention and planning can overcome this with sufficient rapidity.

Road transport is the third largest source of UK greenhouse gases and accounts for over 20% of total emissions. Yet, in reality, the promotion of private vehicles for commercial and private use, and the demonising and destruction of publicly owned transport, is a natural offspring of capitalism. Public transport could cut emissions by 40%, a recent study found. (Reuters, 16 September 2014) The transition to electric vehicles and, more importantly, to good quality public transport (which is far safer) is, like road pollution, a matter of life and death. Last year was the earth’s warmest on record, yet 2015 will be the hottest "by a mile", the Independent reported.

The sheer scale of drought, fire and flood – this corporate destruction of the planet, centred on carbon fuels – is astonishing. Biofuel crop palm oil, claimed as a climate friendly alternative to fossil fuels, is destroying Southeast Asia forests, the lungs of the earth. Having promised to extinguish the western Indonesian forest fires, Bloomberg reported, Indonesia's president "jetted into Sumatra Island last week for a progress check. The smoke was so thick his plane couldn’t land, forcing him back to the capital". (1 October) The haze is blanketing Singapore, parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia the pollution index reached five times the hazardous level, affecting over 100,000 people.

Around the globe, our superheated planet suffers devastation. The worst drought in California’s history has brought wildfires of historic proportions. Four thousand prison inmates, comprising half the fire-fighting force, volunteer and are paid around $2 a day – arsonists are not enlisted. It is probably unlikely that car company executives will be fighting fires in the near future either, as fitting as the punishment might appear. Our demands are not for the return of the chain gang, of course, but for public ownership and workers’ control and management of the transport industry, and a democratically drawn up carbon-free transport plan.

Pete Mason

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