The Diesel Dilemma

When the British Government encouraged  us all to think about CO2 emissions by lowering the tax rates on diesel cars, we saved up to buy a second-hand diesel. After much deliberation, following the realisation that diesel particulates may do more damage than CO2 emissions, we have just bought another — principally because, living in a rural area, we cover a larger than average annual mileage and needed a car with a more van-like driving position for me. The car we have is not a Volkswagen, but made by a company owned by Volkswagen. Like many others the world over, therefore, we are wondering whether the emission figures have been fudged for our car, too, and what the moral implications are. Do we say, we acted according to our best knowledge and belief, which is true up to a point, although we bought our present car in the full knowledge that the case for diesel is not as unassailable as it once seemed; or do we admit that, no less than Volkswagen, we were lured by greed — in our case, the seductiveness of lower vehicle excise duty and fuel costs? As someone who has both sarcoidosis and leiomyosarcoma metastases in the lungs, I can’t pretend to be personally unaffected by this question. I’m implicated both as perpetrator and as (potential) sufferer.

I think this highlights what I was saying earlier in the week about right judgement. We use reason informed by grace to make decisions, but we make them according to our knowledge and belief at the time we make them — and that may not be complete, nor morally unquestionable. When we bought our first diesel car, we did not know about the effect of diesel particulates in the atmosphere; we do now, but even so, decided that other considerations outweighed our concerns. The Volkswagen revelations have undermined much of the basis for our decision because, if there is no CO2 advantage, we can’t offset that against the particulates. The scale of the German car-maker’s fraud and its implications for diesel technology are not yet clear but it may not be too fanciful to liken it to the financial melt-down caused by the failure of Lehmann’s. As always, it is easy to point the finger, to talk about corporate greed and corruption. No one is denying that there must be huge elements of that here; but, if we are honest, aren’t those of us who own diesel cars, to some degree, complicit?


13 thoughts on “The Diesel Dilemma”

  1. How can we be? We can only rely on the information fed to us by the experts and the authorities who have the wherewithal to have the knowledge and to inform us. I have no independent private means to check the veracity of the information fed to us. Now that they have been caught out on this, what else have they been misleading us about? In a complex society we cannot be experts in everything. Same is true for governments and politics and organised religion.

  2. Is it not the case that if the savings you achieve on a purchase do not go to support a lavish, self interested life style, but go to help others, then the decision to make that purchase was not motivated by greed?

  3. I think we cannot be without guilt, it is part of our fallen condition. We can only do the best we can, praying for right judgment and accepting that we are not going to be perfect in this life. I think God honours that attempt

  4. Dear sister,, it saddens me to say this but this piece sounds a teeny bit like a satirical take on Christianity with someone trying to squeeze a few drops of guilt out of a situation where it would only be present in homeopathic amounts.
    You may have my personal absolution for what it is worth.
    God bkess

  5. You are correct about ‘right judgement’ you can only take decisions with the knowledge and choices available at the time. So your purchase had sound reasons behind it, but the situation now changes the facts, known at the time you made your decision. I don’t see this as a guilt trip, but a theological reflection on how our experience in context can change, driven by events outwith our control.

    The morality of the VW Company is in question and it does seem from the circumstances that this was a deliberate attempt to bypass the US emission controls, which are more stringent in either Europe or the UK, and there is little doubt that they as a Company (and perhaps some individuals) will pay a very costly penalty for this, along with apparently having to recall 11 million vehicles at their expense to sort out the emission problems.

    I can’t see any case for guilt, but to ponder on how this situation arose is correct, and than to move past it. It can’t be changed, so living with it is the only way forward.

  6. Hi Sister Catherine,

    It was wonderful to see Pope Francis arrive at the White House in the US this morning–his car a small Fiat. It spoke volumes, but then again his drive was just a few miles.

    It is good to ponder the details of our decisions to see if they are consistent with our values. I get your point about your car. It seems to me that your community factored in many
    issues, such as driving needs, health needs, finances, etc. before making the decision. You would have to factor all that in again and the notion that we still might not be getting the full and accurate facts from manufactures before you decided to get another car. Also, your trade in would still
    be on the road. I wonder what exchanging this car for
    another would really accomplish?
    Thanks for reminding us that it is important to consider
    the details of our decisions in the light of our values .

  7. It is a complex and frustrating issue but not one that should cause despair/guilt. Rather we should strive to examine our own motives and pray for help when complicated sytems make choices difficult to understand. I am reminded of the Live Simply/Fair Trade messages which try to point out ways to act in the face of such dilemmas. We did not all cheat in the emmissions tests but it is right we accept that large corporations provide products we want and in order to keep prices low may act in harmful ways – me choosing a particular brand of coffee or car will not change the world in itself but if I do not even care about the consequences of my lifestyle then I have drifted a long way from the right path. Not guilt but truth and wisdom (right judgement with God’s Grace) should be my guide as the original post expressed. Thanks Sister – always making me think…

  8. Dear Sister Catherine,
    I lived on a main London road for the best part of 40 years and, having choked regularly on vehicle exhaust fumes, would certainly be advising anybody who would listen to avoid a diesel powered engine at all costs.
    But until such time as there is ever enough electricity produced by renewables, there is no form of powered vehicle which does not leave a heavy carbon footprint or pollutes the atmosphere. God gave us limbs to walk or peddle a bike. That is the short term solution or drive a turbo charged diesel subscribing bus pass. The latter presupposes that your county council is prepared to pay the necessary operating subsidies to the bus companies.

  9. The complexity of the issues raised by the “VW diesel scandal” reflect the dilemmas posed in Laudato si’ [122-123], which talks of: “the mind-set of those who say: let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage … we should not think that political efforts or the forces of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment, when the culture is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.

    The relative harm caused by different components of the emissions from a diesel engine is a complex issue – whereas the impact of particulate emissions is primarily a local health issue, carbon dioxide emissions affect people and planet on a global scale. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to offset the benefits of low CO2 emissions against issues associated with the increase in the number of fine particulates. Even if quantitative data were available, it would not possible to extrapolate the impact of the falsified self-testing undertaken by a single manufacturer in the US on emissions from its vehicles to those from any diesel vehicle in the UK/Europe that has been tested by a third-party to different standards under a different testing regime.

    However, the regulators setting the emission standards for CO2, oxides of nitrogen, (NOx) fine particulates themselves were faced with an offsetting issue: thermodynamically, the combustion conditions in an engine which favour lower CO2 emissions also result in high NOx emissions, which are known to have adverse health effects. Engine manufacturers were therefore required to undertake a significant amount of research and development to determine how the criteria in new standards could be achieved.

    Government too has a role both in establishing the criteria for Vehicle Excise Duty, and in ensuring air quality standards. With regard to the latter, the Supreme Court ruled recently in favour of an environmental group that the UK government had failed to comply with NOx limits set by EU law and set targets for implementing measures to remedy this. An unrelated action in the Netherland by another environmental group successfully challenged to the government’s unambitious CO2 targets.

    Clearly this does not assist the purchasers of diesel cars, although seeking ways to reduce one’s car use (car sharing, public transport, avoiding short journeys &c) will cut down both CO2 and NOx

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