Everyone makes mistakes. The vast majority of those missteps, however, don’t result in the premature deaths of thousands of people.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened when the EU incentivized the sales of diesel vehicles. Now its citizens are paying for that policy choice in the form of toxic clouds of smog choking many of its biggest cities and impacting urban public health in a big way. This story isn’t getting the sort of coverage it deserves, partly (one suspects) because this mistake was motivated by a desire to “go green”—you can be sure Europe’s smog problem would be generating a lot more environmentalist outrage if nefarious fossil fuel companies were behind it.
Nick Clairmont, TAI‘s former staff writer, has an excellent write-up of this saga up on The Atlantic:
[Diesel] was seen as more efficient, on a mileage-per-gallon basis, than other fossil fuels, and for that reason was also thought to be less polluting. About two decades ago, acting on those beliefs, policy makers in Europe—where high energy prices already made mileage a more-pressing issue than in the U.S.—made a number of rules that incentivized the growth of diesel over gasoline for use in passenger cars, moving past its traditional role in trucking and construction. […]
But while diesels get better mileage and so contribute less to global climate change, the local effects of diesel pollution are much worse than those of gasoline. Diesel is a less refined fuel, and so it contains more of the particulate matter that can have deadly health effects when spewed into the surrounding environment. And burning diesel produces, among other noxious gases, nitrogen dioxide, the main cause of smog.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. It’s a great recap of a remarkable shift in transportation in one of the world’s most important car markets, and it gives the curious reader some insights into the diesel versus gasoline debate, and why so many eurocrats fell under diesel’s spell.
It also gets to the center of the diesel problem in Europe: a clash of two of modern environmentalism’s biggest concerns, climate change and air quality. With its higher mileages and greater efficiency, diesel was sold as a more climate change friendly option than gasoline, and for many vehicles that argument rings true (though the recent VW scandal certainly casts a pall on arguments that rest on the accuracy of diesel emissions testing). But diesel also emits more local air pollutants than gasoline, so in order to go green globally, Europe acceded to polluting locally. Now it’s coming to grips with the fact that that was a mistake.
It’s going to take many years to undo all of this, too, as the diesel vehicles sold at a steady clip over the past twenty years will be on the roads for decades to come. In the meantime, Europe’s cities and citizens will continue to struggle with a decline in air quality.