The revelation that Volkswagen deliberately circumvented emissions tests on many of its diesel vehicles has provoked a huge storm of controversy. This diesel deception has understandably angered car owners. And some have suggested that VW’s management either must have known about the scandal, or effectively lost control of the company. The allegations are severe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VW deployed a “defeat device” enabling its cars to meet emissions standards under official test conditions, even though they can release up to 40 times the legal level of nitrogen oxides (NOx) under normal driving conditions. Worse was to come though. VW went on to admit that 11m vehicles worldwide had been fitted with the device. An analysis by the Guardian puts the collective impact of this number of cars at nearly one million additional tonnes of air pollution per year. Loopholes In the EU, it increasingly seems that there is more to this scandal than car manufacturers using underhand tactics to “hotwire” official emissions tests. Leaked documents have revealed that three powerful member states – the UK, France and Germany – have all recently lobbied for the inclusion of loopholes in a new emissions test planned for roll-out in 2017. Germany, it seems, even called for this new test to be conducted on a sloping downhill track. In Brussels itself, my own conversations with EU officials have exposed a tendency to accept carmakers’ behaviour as an unavoidable part of the regulatory “game”. On more than one occasion I have heard the argument that what vehicle manufacturers are doing can’t really be classed as cheating, because – after all – wouldn’t any rational economic actor seek to “exploit the flexibilities” in this kind of regulatory test to their advantage? All of this should give us serious pause for thought. Circumventing an emissions test is one thing. But if member states are actively calling for Brussels to enable the continuation of this behaviour, and EU officials themselves see it as a natural part of the “game”, then we must ask who – if anybody – is left to represent the interests of the public, or indeed the climate, in the development of the EU’s environmental agenda. Debate and data stifling The scandal in fact reveals deep-seated pathologies in the way the EU’s environmental policies are made. It is, crucially, the EU’s privileging of “expert”, industry-generated data on these emissions, produced by a supposedly objective, repeatable test, that has allowed VW to deceive its customers and the wider public. Yet these are the same industry experts who stifle debate about the sustainability of petrol and diesel carmakers’ contributions to the EU’s economy. This, even as Europe faces growing crises of urban air pollution, obesity, and of course climate change. Meanwhile, on-the-road emissions data, such as that painstakingly assembled by the International Council on Clean Transportation, is all too often dismissed as unscientific, and open to the corrupting influences of a messy and complex “real world”. These data are effectively crowdsourced from thousands of drivers and other road users, many with an economic interest in averting the depreciation of their vehicles. And it is these road users – and the wider public at large – who have no choice but to subject themselves to urban air pollution across Europe. According to a recent Transport & Environment report, this “invisible killer” leads to 500,000 premature deaths a year. And diesel vehicles are the principal cause of those deaths. VW’s diesel deception doesn’t just point to an urgent need for a better vehicle emissions test; it highlights the requirement for a more open and inclusive approach to dealing with environmental problems in Europe. As the EU seeks to address and move on from this scandal, Brussels must break the stranglehold exerted over its vehicle pollutant emissions legislation by an inner circle of hubristic industry experts. Instead, it must embrace the ideas, concerns and knowledge of those who most suffer in the face of air pollution – the European public.
2015 will likely be the hottest year on record, according to a preliminary analysis released by the World Meteorological Organization. Worldwide temperatures are expected for the first time to reach more than 1℃ above pre-industrial temperatures.
The five years from 2011-2015 will also likely be the hottest five-year period on record. Average global atmospheric CO₂ concentrations over three months also hit 400 parts per million for the first time during the southern hemisphere Autumn this year. On top of this, we are experiencing one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded.
According to Dr Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, these climate milestones are both symbolic and highly significant.
“One degree is half way to the 2 degree guardrail of warming that the global community is aiming for in terms of future climate change,” Dr Braganza said.
“400 parts per million of CO₂ in the atmosphere is a composition that the climate system has not likely seen in probably the past 2.5 million years.”
In Australia, 2015 is likely to fall into the top 10 warmest years on record, all of which have occurred this century.
Dr Braganza said that record breaking hot weather was now six times more likely than it was early last century. Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm at an alarming rate.
“About 90% of the additional heat from the advanced greenhouse effect goes into warming the oceans,” he said.
This is particularly worrying as any change to sea temperature is potentially very significant in terms of impacts on Australia’s weather, from droughts to flooding rains.
Dr David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne, said that there was little doubt as to the cause of the warming.
“It is now all but certain that 2015 will be the hottest year since record keeping began.
“The new record high global temperature in 2015 is mainly due to human-caused global warming, with smaller contributions from El Niño and from other natural climate variations,” Dr Karoly said.
According to calculations by Karoly and colleagues as part of the World Weather Attribution Project coordinated by Climate Central, temperatures will likely reach around 1.05℃ above pre-industrial temperatures. Of this, about 1℃ can be attributed to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, about 0.05ºC-0.1ºC to El Niño, and about 0.02ºC to higher solar activity. The numbers don’t quite add up to 1.05℃ due to uncertainties and natural variability.
The World Meteorological Organization statement comes as world leaders are set to meet in Paris next week to begin the next round of negotiations on taking action against climate change.
This week, The Guardian newspaper has campaigned for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest its fossil fuel investments – which the newspaper claims are worth US$1.4 billion. The foundation can and should address the climate crisis, particularly given the threat it poses to food security, public health, human rights, and the development agenda. Practical responses The Gates Foundation has made a significant contribution to practical responses to poverty, and Bill Gates has been a long-standing advocate of “creative capitalism” to address global development issues. To their credit, Bill and Melinda Gates have shown great personal engagement with larger questions about human development, and their foundation has been a significant actor in the fields of agriculture, global health, education, and population.
Bill Gates during a 2013 speech on climate change. Photo: Matthew Rimmer. Yet it has also been reluctant to address the climate question directly, stating: "The foundation believes that climate change is a major issue facing all of us, particularly poor people in developing countries, and we applaud the work that others are doing to help find solutions in this area," and: "While we do not fund efforts specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions, many of our global health and development grants directly address problems that climate change creates or exacerbates."
Sign on climate change at the Gates Foundation. Photo: Matthew Rimmer. For instance, the foundation highlights its agricultural development initiative, which it says will “help small farmers who live on less than $1 per day adapt to increased drought and flooding through the development of drought and flood resistant crops, improved irrigation efficiency, and other means”. While this certainly involves indirectly responding to climate change, it doesn’t put the issue of preventing climate change at the heart of the issue. In his annual letter, Bill Gates noted: "It is fair to ask whether the progress we’re predicting will be stifled by climate change… The most dramatic problems caused by climate change are more than 15 years away, but the long-term threat is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively — right now — to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide." This is a somewhat curious statement, given the real and present danger already posed to food security, biodiversity, public health, and human security. The energy question Bill Gates has another keen interest: energy security. He has discussed what he sees as the need for an “energy miracle” to remedy the climate: "To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough." He seems to have been interested in nuclear power, carbon capture, and geo-engineering - rather than renewable energy. For her part, Melinda Gates has been highly critical of climate deniers, emphasising the need for politicians to heed climate science. The Naomi Klein factor See video: This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein In a 2013 article in the Nation, the writer Naomi Klein expressed concerns about the huge fossil fuel holdings of some charities, including the Gates Foundation, and argued that this was inconsistent with public health goals: "A top priority of the Gates Foundation has been supporting malaria research, a disease intimately linked to climate… Does it really make sense to fight malaria while fueling one of the reasons it may be spreading more ferociously in some areas?" In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, she went on to criticise the efforts of green billionaires to save us from climate change. Of Bill Gates and his foundation, she wrote: "Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2 billion invested in just two oil giants, BP and ExxonMobil, as of December 2013, and those are only the beginning of his fossil fuel holdings." Gates has been directly questioned on this issue, both in an interview with a Dutch journalist and during a 2013 appearance on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program. See video: Bill Gates on ABC’s Q&A Klein has also criticised Bill Gates' technocratic approach to the climate crisis, considering him to be overly dismissive of renewable energy: "When Gates had his climate change epiphany, he too immediately raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix in the future - without pausing to consider viable - if economically challenging - responses in the here and now." Will The Guardian’s campaign succeed? The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has pledged to put climate change at the “front and centre” of the newspaper’s coverage, lending support to the global divestment movement and urging philanthropic trusts like the Gates Foundation and Britain’s Wellcome Trust to follow the example of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. See video: Keep It In The Ground The Guardian said it recognised that the Gates Foundation has made “a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects”, but warned that “investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions.” The campaign urges the Gates Foundation “to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies”. Rusbridger wrote that this would be “a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels”. Hopefully, the campaign will be successful. Bill and Melinda Gates have certainly shown a willingness in the past to revise their approach, in light of new evidence, and both have been disturbed by the politics of climate denial. The Gates Foundation can make a stronger contribution to the battle against climate change, especially given how the climate issue cuts across its food security, public health, and human rights aims. This is one way it can do so.