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?