It’s a fair bet that VW HQ has recently been teeming with lawyers and ‘reputation recovery consultants. ‘CAR’ is the conventional post-disaster communications advice for corporations (indeed for anyone), and it stands for:
in that order.
So, it’s first convincingly show real concern and understanding of the damage you’ve done. Second, explain and more importantly show the action you are taking. Third, explain how this will avoid it ever happening again.
It’s important to get this sequence right. A sure sign of getting it back to front is to try and start with ‘reassurance’ as in, “to put this in perspective, this is the first such problem in over 50 years” or “all cars sold before [date] were not affected”. At least VW didn’t do that but overall it’s not done a great job.
VW certainly sounded honestly sorry but mainly sorry for itself. A VW Board Member acknowledged criminality had taken place and the company moved quickly to sack some executives (good in PR terms). It has also spoken clearly about a loss of trust but that really only states the obvious. It has yet to get to the significant stuff, and campaigners should make sure it does get there and the story doesn’t just become a long wait for litigation and criminal proceedings.
“What happens next?” asked an article on the VW scandal in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The answer was ‘VW has offered to fix affected models and expects to start the recall in January 2016. It is facing investigations in over a dozen countries as well as lawsuits from motorists.’
It’s important that recalls and investigations are not all that happens.
The Breathing Public
So far the only actions VW has promised seem to be aimed at customers and shareholders: product recall and the like. VW seems to want to reassure customers and rebuild trust but it’s the Breathing Public rather than the car-buying public it needs to make amends with.
It’s time for some Restorative Justice for people and the environment. Here’s my suggestion for what VW should do, or be made to do.
- Clean Up The Air
Calculations should be made of the total additional air pollution created as a result of VWs cheating. VW should then change its cars so that ‘pollution debt’ is paid off in the same time period that it arose in, or sooner. So X million tonnes of NOX debt created over N years should be paid off by making cars X million tonnes cleaner in N years or less going forwards, by retrofitting them and/or by replacing them with much cleaner cars.
In theory there are also ways to suck NOX from the atmosphere and clean it up. Those would be fine too. Expensive ? Probably but VW should pay.
- Health Reparations
Of course the above actions would not bring back the lives of people VW has killed. A few attempts have already been made to model or guesstimate those.
An ‘indicative calculation’ by Greenpeace’s Energy Desk suggests 700 – 1400 deaths each year based on a health impact assessment methodology used by the European Union, ‘due to increased risk of chronic diseases from air pollution such as cardiovascular diseases, strokes and ischaemic heart disease’.
In America, Vox reports that ballpark figures using data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest ‘the extra pollution from Volkswagen’s US cars can be expected to lead to an additional 5 to 27 premature deaths per year’. A calculation run for Associated Press reported in International Business Times suggested ‘the emissions violations caused somewhere between 16 and 94 deaths in the US since 2008, with the total cost to society as high as $170m (£112m; €151m)’.
VW should do something proportionate to show it cares about human health and the environment, not just car sales. It should sit down with health groups and the councils of towns and cities and work with them to finance health programmes. How much should it invest ? At least as much as the profit it made from selling the offending vehicles.
Once it is locked into doing the two things above, VW can start to rebuild public trust. There’s one very obvious way to do this (see below).
- Go Electric: Abandon the Internal Combustion Engine
VW should stop making diesel and petrol cars (and vans) and go all electric, not only in China but everywhere. By 2020 would be a reasonable commitment, in line with its Chinese plans, and soon enough to show it really means business.
Of course electric cars need to run on renewable energy to be non-polluting and they need a charging infrastructure. VW should invest in both.
In surveys run for Greenpeace since 2011 we found 64.4% of Indians, 61.8% of Brazilians and 31.5% of Americans agreed “I’d like my next car to be an electric one”. The VW scandal makes this even more likely. We’ve got to get rid of fossil fuels anyway. The only sensible move for VW is to try and take the lead over other car majors and go all electric.
The VW scandal is a disaster on many dimensions that has already pushed ‘environment’ up social and political agendas. It is also therefore an opportunity to catalyse and – if it’s not an inappropriate term – turbo-charge environmental improvement, to put new energy and resources into cleaning up our cities and countryside, into cutting environmental pollution, cutting health costs and thus improving lives and economies.
Campaign groups may be tempted to just sit back let the VW scandal run its course. After all VW has ‘ticked every box’ in the scandal equation and litigation is inevitable. But that would be a mistake.
The social gains that can be made will not be realised if VW is allowed to ‘make provisions’ in its accounts, to hunker down until media attention disspiates, and to wait for its share price to start moving up again. VW may not change. The Gulf Oil Spill didn’t fundamentally change BP. Yet we do need to change the global car industry, just as the oil industry needs to be phased out.
The back story to the VW disaster is of course deeply political. Governments knew but didn’t want to know, so until the US EPA intervened, they did nothing. Governments like the UK have grown used to handing over power to corporations like VW and the car industry, in this case effectively allowing them to regulate themselves (the UK has no on-road tests and relies on a testing body 70% funded by car-makers: for more see the Transport and Environment website).
It’s the same idea, seeing the role of government as little more than acting as custodians of a National Business Park, which leads them to support proposals like the EU’s ‘Better Regulation Initiative’, which when translated from EU-speak, means a plan for weaker regulation of business and weaker social and environmental protections. As the protective net gets ever more threadbare, more cases of corporate bad behaviour will slip through it.
Likewise TTIP, which if passed will put corporations in the driving seat, making the rules to suit them, rather than in the public interest.
The VW disaster is an an unmistakable warning of the consequences of this sort of privatisation of policy making. Let corporations write the rules and there won’t be any more VW scandals, because the emission standards will be set to those they know they can meet without cheating.