If Volkswagen can’t find a fix to its cheating TDI diesels, the cars will have to be “responsibly recycled,” which is just another way of saying they’re going to the junkyard. Is this really better for the environment than simply keeping the highly fuel efficient cars on the road? The answer is: we don’t know.
After I showed pictures of hundreds of VWs just rotting in the Pontiac Silverdome parking lot awaiting a verdict from CARB and the EPA on whether they’ll live to drive another day, people naturally wondered if scrapping all of these cars was really an environmentally-friendly thing to do.
After all, it takes energy to recycle an old car, and more importantly, it takes energy to manufacture a replacement—plus you have to calculate the effects of scrapping all that metal. And even if they were way high on NOx emissions, these TDIs were known to score 50+ MPG.
How can crushing them be better for the environment?
To answer whether or not it would make more sense to just keep the VWs on the road versus recycle them would require a full life cycle study by the Environmental Protection Agency or the California Air Resources Board to determine the net CO2 imbalance (CO2 is associated with climate change) caused by prematurely decommissioning all the vehicles, and then weighing that against NOx (which is associated with smog and adverse health effects. More on that in a bit.)
Such life cycle studies have been done before, and you’ll find quite a few of them covering the U.S. Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) Act of 2009, also known as Cash For Clunkers. These studies, which deal primarily with CO2 emissions, dig into whether killing off all the guzzlers (which may still have had some life in them) and making owners buy newer, more efficient cars, was actually an environmental benefit or a detriment.
(It’s worth noting that most studies seem to conclude that Cash For Clunkers was actually beneficial thanks to the large gap in MPGs between the cars turned in and those purchased.)
The question is: In the Dieselgate settlement, did the EPA conduct such a life cycle study before deciding upon a solution that could send nearly half a million vehicles to the junkyard?
I reached out to the EPA and Volkswagen asking that very question, and both sources directed me to the California Air Resources Board. Eventually, I got a hold of somebody at CARB, and learned that the answer is no: nobody had conducted a Life Cycle Study on these vehicles.
Before I continue, I’ll briefly discuss the difference between CO2 and NOx. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, while NOx leads to the formation of criteria pollutants like O3 and particulate matter. CO2 has detrimental effects on climate change, while NOx is better known to cause smog and health concerns like asthma.
The issue with VW’s TDI vehicles, CARB representative Stanley Young told me over email, is that they emitted extralegal amounts of NOx, which brings along associated local health concerns—health concerns that MIT has estimated could cause 1,200 people in Europe to die early.
Young emphasized that with the VW settlement, the goal was to get the cars off the road to prevent the health issues associated with NOx, and also to remedy the fact that consumers had been lied to, saying:
Because the cars are equipped with defeat devices they emit up to 40x more NOx than the standards to which they were certified. The impacts of NOx to public health are significant, and need to be dealt with appropriately. At the same time consumers were sold a car that did not perform as advertised, and this needed to be dealt with appropriately as well.
This latter point was reiterated by Elizabeth Cabraser, lead counsel of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, who told me in a teleconference:
As class counsel, we not only have to strike the balance in terms of environment versus economy, but the economic interests and environmental concerns of our class members, the owners. We’re consumerists, that’s how we look at it.
So clearly the main focus in drawing up the VW Dieselgate settlement was on preventing health issues and on getting owners compensated for VW’s lies—not necessarily climate change associated with CO2.
That makes a lot of sense. But still, there could be a half a million cars sent to the crusher—you’d think an environmental agency would have run some numbers on the carbon impact as well.
The reason why the settlement didn’t determine the carbon imbalance associated with taking the cars off the road before the end of their useful life, CARB’s Stanley Young told me over the phone a few months ago, is that there’s no accepted methodology for such life cycles studies.
Young said there’s no way of knowing how far you’d take the study. Do you go through every piece of plastic? How do you determine the Greenhouse Gas intensity of screws? What about the carbon intensity of creating the motor? Do you include what happens to it at the end of life? These are all big question marks, Young told me.
After I pointed out that a number of academic institutions had already published life cycle studies the like aforementioned Cash For Clunkers reports, I questioned whether it would have been prudent to at least look into the CO2 ramifications of junking so many cars. Mr. Young told me there’s nothing that can be done now, saying something to the effect of:
Do you want me to go back and tell the federal agency and VW in California to redo the consent decree to [consider] the carbon life cycle in the car cars that are going be scrapped?
He then admitted that it would be productive and worthwhile to develop metrics for such studies so they can be used in the future, but that “until there is an accepted metric and protocol for determining the carbon impact of creating a specific car for a specific model year... then it is in a sense not productive to engage in that discussion.”
For her part, Cabraser, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the settlement case, said something similar about the complexity involved with such an undertaking:
I think various individuals and groups have studied parts of the problem...It’s a complex question...I don’t think it’s possible to answer that question, but I am not an environmental economist.
So clearly the lack of a standardized process played a part in not running a lifecycle study to figure out the effects of crushing the cars on climate change, as did a focus on local health effects of NOx. Expediency also played a role, as the court worked hard to get these vehicles off the road as quickly as possible to prevent further NOx pollution, and to ensure that consumers are promptly compensated.
A number of overseas markets are flooded with vehicles that pollute a lot worse than Volkswagen’s TDIs. Displacing a single old-school diesel vehicle in a developing country, for example, with a modern direct injected, turbo Volkswagen TDI would—you would think—be a major advantage from an environmental standpoint.
But, as Ms. Cabraser answered in our Q&A with the head Dieselgate lawyer, VW selling their cars overseas was not an option considered:
VW can only sell these cars overseas if they receive an EPA and CARB approved modification or repair. It was important to us, the EPA and CARB that VW not have overseas markets as an escape from being accountable under US emissions standards for the cars they originally sold here. It was also very important to many class members that the world environment as well as our own be protected from these emissions to the extent practical.
It seems that punishing VW, and making a statement that what they did is unacceptable by preventing international sale of the vehicles were the two primary reasons for this decision, even if there could theoretically be a net environmental benefit of sending the cars overseas.
So to everyone wondering if scrapping the cars is actually better for the environment than keeping the cars on the road, the answer is: nobody really ran the numbers, and it’s complicated. But that doesn’t mean the EPA, CARB and the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee didn’t at least consider this as a factor when drawing up the settlement terms.
In fact, in my conversation with Cabraser, she said her team “did what [they] could in the settlement to temper all of those [environmental] ramifications,” and in our Q&A she said they “always have the net environmental impact in mind and it is a delicate balance.” For example, the cars can’t just be scrapped, they have to be recycled in an environmentally responsible way in a process that will be overseen by the EPA and California Air Resources Board.
Cabraser then went on, discussing how both the 2.0-liter and 3.0-liter settlements give VW the option to bring the vehicles’ NOx pollution down to levels that are higher than what the cars were originally certified to, but still much lower than current levels.
While this was undoubtedly done primarily to allow owners to keep their cars (again, Elizabeth and her team are “consumerists”), this modification option has a secondary benefit of preventing cars from being recycled before the end of their useful lives, avoiding the associated CO2 costs.
CARB’s Young said essentially the same thing:
...while we didn’t do a lifecycle assessment, the agreement does consider it in a way – because we allow an emissions modification if the company can meet the requirements in the agreement...The modification helps ensure we get useful life out of the vehicles while addressing the illegal NOx emissions.
On top of the modification option (it’s worth noting that only 2015 model VWs have had their modification approved, while the remaining approximately 500,000 cars could still be headed to the junykard), there are also environmental mitigation actions built into the settlement.
Volkswagen has to pay $2.7 billion to “fully mitigate the total, lifetime excess NOx emissions from the 2.0 Liter Subject Vehicles where the 2.0 Liter Subject Vehicles were, are or will be operated” in the form of a mitigation trust. The trust will disperse money to certain areas (dependent upon the concentration of VW TDIs) to fund certain NOx mitigation actions.
Those actions include retrofitting over-the-road trucks and buses with “any new diesel or Alternate Fueled engine or All-Electric engine,” or just replacing those vehicles with “any new diesel or Alternate Fueled or All-Electric vehicle.”
On top of that, VW has to spend $2 billion promoting zero emissions vehicle awareness and infrastructure. Between these two environmental commitments, Volkswagen may very well make up for the carbon pollution associated with scrapping all those cars.
The thing that makes recycling 500,000 VWs even worse for the environment than the costs of manufacturing a replacement is the the fact that these cars will likely be replaced by less fuel efficient cars.
Deepak Rajagopal, professor at the institute of the environment and sustainability at UCLA and author of multiple life-cycle studies, told me that manufacturing a new car only accounts for about 5 percent of all carbon emissions, while the rest comes from the fuel needed to drive the car (the end-of-life recycling part is actually quite efficient).
Since TDIs are known to score over 50 MPG, the real detriment to climate change, then, is consumers who will sell their fuel efficient car back to VW and replace it with one that burns more fuel, and thus emits more CO2.
This is a real issue—my inbox is regularly flooded with emails from owners who honestly don’t know what new vehicle could possibly replace their trusty fuel-sipping TDI.
Of course, for all we know, all Dieselgate class members will buy Priuses. But I doubt it. As for scrapping cars, Rajagopal told me that part of the equation, in the grand scheme, is minuscule, and that the impact of NOx is likely much more important.
Yes, half a million scrapped cars is a shocking thing to picture. And yes, there will be pollution emitted when automakers build replacements—ones that that will likely emit more CO2 from their tailpipes than the fuel-sipping TDIs. And while it’s tempting to criticize the fact that a life cycle study was not completed to really dig into a carbon imbalance associated with junking these cars, there are a number of reasons why the settlement still makes a lot of sense.
Not only does it require VW to spend $2.7 billion and $2.0 billion on NOx mitigation and Zero Electric Vehicle promotion, respectively—both of which could also mitigate CO2 caused by scrapping the vehicles—but there’s a modification option still on the table to keep the cars on the road.
Add to that the fact that we don’t know what vehicles the TDI owners will replace their cars with, and it becomes clear that even running a life cycle study to calculate the true CO2 imbalance would be damn near impossible.
Even if you could, how would you weigh NOx against CO2? If you kept the cars on the road to reduce CO2 pollution, but the trade-off was the health issues associated with NOx, would that be acceptable? That’s a debate that’s been around forever.
As lead counsel for the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee Elizabeth Cabraser put it in our 3.0-liter settlement conference call: “...the best of all possible worlds has different answers depending on perspective.”