How do we stop the next Dieselgate? With Sustainable Development Goals and environmental standards

| 14th November 2017
Spoof image mocking VW after the 'Dieselgate' scandal in which car makers evaded carbon emissions tests. (C)
Spoof image mocking VW after the 'Dieselgate' scandal in which car makers evaded carbon emissions tests. (C)
The law of unintended consequences is usually assumed to mean the best will in the world can still cause terrible harm. But the need to understand the causes of climate change is forcing societies to address other risks from industrial production, argues NATALIE BENNETT.
Counting emissions of a product shouldn’t end at the factory gate

Dieselgate” happened after governments - with decent intentions -pushed manufacturers towards diesel engines in cars as a way of cutting their carbon emissions.

We needn’t have had the disaster of air pollution that resulted – the manufacturers chose to cut costs rather than emissions of dangerous gases and particulates – but the issue nonetheless highlights an important topic that needs to be addressed whenever we talk about climate change: the other impacts of the choices we make.

The scandal came to my mind when I was at a session last week at the Bonn climate talks, where the chemistry industry was setting out its flag for what it had done to tackle climate change.

Organic matter

It reminded me a lot of an earlier session with the International Marine Organisation, where there was talk of polished propellers, cleaner hulls and computer-guide routing – things that save companies money and nibble at the edges of the giant mountain of carbon reduction we need to climb. Here we got slightly more efficient processes and LED lightbulbs.

What was presented as a flagship was the Nitric Acid Climate Action Group, funded by the German government, which is offering free help to companies in 32 countries to cut the emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from chemical plants, which are chiefly producing nitrogen fertilisers.

The first question that might be put to that, as it was from the audience, was whether subsidising big, often multinational, companies who should be making these steps anywhere was the best way to proceed. Good question.

But there’s an even more fundamental issue here. When the end product, nitrogen fertiliser, is used on the ground, recent research has shown that it produces far more nitrous oxide emissions than had been thought.

And even more than that, it damages soil health and fertility, by reducing the organic matter in the soil and the availability of organic nitrogen. An old Dutch proverb says that fertiliser is good for the father and bad for the sons.

Getting people thinking

Counting emissions of this product shouldn’t end at the factory gate. It needs to consider the full costs of its production (which is unavoidably high energy) and use.

Now the industry will say, as a Canadian representative did when I put these points, that we need the fertiliser to grow food. But we need to keep growing food for many decades, indeed centuries, and destroying the soil, as industrial agriculture is doing, is not the way to do that. 

When I asked the panel how we could prevent climate change decisions having disastrous impacts in other areas, Dr Arunabha Ghosh, from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in India, gave what I thought was a good answer: we should ensure every decision is guided by checking against the Sustainable Development Goals – the 17 aims covering essentials of human life and environmental survival – which we are aiming to achieve by 2030. “Every action and policy has to be consistent with these,” he said.

An alternative, more industry-focused answer came in a later discussion with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), in the form of ISO14001, a system of certification of environmental standards that builds in “integrated systems thinking” with a focus on resilience and resource efficiency.

I have some doubts whether that goes anything like far enough or fast enough, but it is a start, with about half a million company users worldwide. And it is getting people thinking in the right way.

Politics and economics

For while climate change is a pressing, existential issue for the human race, it isn’t the only one. Choking our planet with plastics, poisoning it with pesticides and herbicides and trashing its soils are all pushing right at the limits of what this Earth can absorb.

We cannot afford most of the products that the people in that room in Bonn are now producing. Cutting their emissions risks making it appear they can continue (and often cuts their costs at the same time). It may be the worst possible thing to do.

As a speaker from the brilliant Via Campesina global farmers’ group said in another session: “Climate change is a systemic problem of politics and economics. It can’t be solved with new technology.”

This Author

Natalie Bennett is the former co-leader of the Green party. She is in Bonn with the Green Economics Institute. She tweets at @natalieben.