A blue Volkswagen car

The Golf 7 TDI, one of several VW diesel models recalled by the U.S. government for software that cheats on emissions tests. Photo: rockingcars / Flickr.

The revelation that German automaker Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests by installing fraudulent software has caused a firestorm. The company’s share price dropped dramatically, a criminal investigation was launched in the U.S., and CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned under pressure. Millions of cars worldwide are affected, and dozens of class-action lawsuits have been filed, claiming many billions of dollars in damages. Social media has been abuzz with #dieselgate.

Public brouhaha aside, from a climate change policy perspective, what is most troubling about this scandal is not what the company did, but the vulnerabilities it exposed in environmental policy.

Two months from now, world leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate a new climate agreement, and the commitments they will bring to the table reflect what each government believes it can achieve through national policies. In the U.S., for example, the Clean Power Plan is expected to play a key role in achieving climate targets, along with rising fuel efficiency standards and tougher air quality rules.

At the same time, pledges delivered until September 2015 will very likely not be enough to keep global warming below the internationally agreed goal of 2°C. But climate action is not confined to Paris or to national governments, and a wide variety of actors, covering a range of issue areas, have entered the fold. For instance, the NAZCA (Non State Actor Zone for Climate Action) web portal, launched in 2014, now lists close to 4,000 commitments by cities, regions, investors and companies to tackle climatechange.

So how does Volkswagen fit in this picture? First of all, the NAZCA portal lists the German carmaker with four pledges, one promising to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its European car fleet by 45% by 2020. Second, the software it installed directly undermined a policy measure – mandatory vehicle emissions testing – that had been adopted to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. The Volkswagen scandal thus highlights the limitations of two key strategies that world leaders are counting on to achieve climate targets: voluntary pledges and regulatory action.

Source: The Huffington Post, US