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VW can be great again by going fossil free

As heads begin to roll over the scandal of Volkswagen’s fiddling with the pollution data of their diesel engines, I’m wondering how VW will regain the confidence of its customers and be great again.

It is ironic that VW’s cheating device was uncovered days before the world leaders met in New York to agree a new set of global goals for sustainable development. The goals include important targets for improving air quality, dealing with climate change, as well as responsible consumption and production. Business leaders may want to adopt them as a standard for sustainability.

VW chiefs deny they have put their customers at risk, but they are ignoring figures on how air pollution affects human health, including the health of VW car drivers. Car emissions and other forms of outdoor pollution are responsible for 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide[1]. Shifting to clean modes of power generation in transport is one of the main ways to reduce air pollution in cities.

VW chiefs have no choice but to act on public opinion. Public opinion surveys in the UK show people overwhelmingly support a move away from fossil fuels[2]. And why is this? It’s because everyday people see the bigger picture on energy. They see the consequences of burning fossil fuels for local air pollution and health, for their household bills, and for climate change. They see that ownership of fossil fuel reserves influences wars and creates international tensions. Europeans see climate change as the third most important global issue, after poverty and the economic situation. Other research also shows that emissions need to decrease to zero to stabilise the world’s climate, requiring substantial cuts in emissions over the next decades[3].

Investments in car technology to reduce emissions are currently undervalued as a means to move to zero emissions, despite their broader health, social, environmental and economic benefits for society[4]

Strong leaders can drive rapid transformation. VW is a major player that has made a monumental gaffe. It has unwittingly put itself at the forefront of the climate debate and discussions about radically reducing car emissions (without cheating). The most elegant move for VW is to now announce its leadership to build a zero-carbon fleet.

In New York last weekend the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, US president Barak Obama, and the Pope called for all leaders including businesses to come to the fore in helping every country of the UN achieve the global goals for sustainable development. The timing is right for VW to once again become a globally respected manufacturer and leader by transforming itself from fossil fuelled to a shrewd company for good.