The big news in the automotive world last week was the discovery
that Volkswagen (VW) vehicles have been using software specially
designed to cheat in order to pass strict US emissions tests for
its diesel engine cars. A small non-profit organisation called the
International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) performed
tests on the VW Passat and VW Jetta, initially to
show that diesel-fuelled vehicles could run with cleaner
emissions as demanded by the US's very strict regulations.
What they discovered was quite the opposite, however, revealing
that the vehicles were in fact breaching the US regulations by up
to 40 times the emissions standard allowed. A wide-ranging plot to
cheat the emissions testing was soon revealed in which the
cars' software would reduce performance when under test
conditions, thus reducing the harmful emissions produced. But what
exactly are the environmental consequences of the emissions in
question and what does this mean for VW drivers (or possibly
drivers of any diesel vehicle) in Australia?
The main emissions in question are nitrogen oxides (often
referred to as NOX) which, while not being greenhouse gasses, are
still a major environmental concern. These compounds can cause
breathing difficulties, particularly for those with asthma or who
exercise outside. NOX can produce ozone in the troposphere (the
part of the atmosphere where we all live) which, as opposed to
stratospheric ozone, is in fact a problematic pollutant causing
further respiratory problems and smog. NOX can also react with
other compounds in the air to form acid rain, with severe
consequences for the local environment. With an estimated 40,000
vehicles affected, the ramifications for the Australian environment
is clearly of great concern.
So what emissions regulations exist in Australia that might
affect these vehicles? Australia is currently in the process of applying
the same United Nations-developed standards that exist in
Europe but this process is still ongoing and slightly
Under the current timetable for regulation adoption, light
diesel vehicles have been effectively regulated based on the Euro 4
limits (NOX limits of 0.25 g/km) since 2006,
however new vehicles must adhere to the stricter Euro 5 (NOX limits
of 0 .18 g/km) since 2013, with all light diesel
vehicles complying with Euro 5 by November 2016. The even stricter
Euro 6 (NOX limit of 0.08 g/km) will be introduced
in July 2017. These still pale in comparison to the US's strict
0.043 g/km limit, but given that ICCT's tests
showed emissions as high as 1.809 g/km and all
tests (other than the control) saw results no lower than
0.171 g/km it seems unlikely that VW will find
much comfort in Australia and Europe's slightly more relaxed
All this suggests that owners of diesel VW cars (or their
"sister brands" Audi and Skoda) have a right to feel a
bit nervous about the future of their vehicle. Given the sheer
scale of this scandal, it is a fair bet that the regulator's
eye will soon be on other manufacturer's diesel-fuelled
If the ACCC's investigation reveals that car buyers have
been misled and those owners are subsequently required to make
alterations to their vehicles to comply with required standards
then the car manufacturers may find themselves exposed to
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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The article is a review of recent developments in compliance, enforcement and prosecutions relating to environmental law.
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