Volkswagen tötet Babys

A rough estimate of the deaths caused worldwide by Volkswagen’s emissions scam: 1, 450 to 5,800.

(h/t to a famous campaign of the 1970s against Nestlé’s marketing of baby formula in Africa)

How many people did Volkswagen kill with their conspiracy to rig the diesel emissions tests? Kevin Drum has come up with a back-of-the envelope estimate of 12 in California. For the world, it’s much, much higher.

Step one: VW have admitted that the engine controllers may have been fitted to 11m vehicles worldwide. The Guardian has estimated the excess emissions:

A Guardian analysis found those [482,000 VW and Audi] US vehicles would have spewed between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual US mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tonnes of NOx each year in total. The company admitted the device may have been fitted to 11m of its vehicles worldwide. If that proves correct, VW’s defective vehicles could be responsible for between 237,161 and 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions each year, 10 to 40 times the pollution standard for new models in the US.

Step two: translate that into excess deaths. The total NOx emissions in the UK are about 2.2m tonnes a year. What’s the death toll?  A recent revision by researchers from King’s College of their estimate for premature deaths in London in 2010 from air pollution gave 5,879 from NO2, on top of 3,537 from fine particles (PM2.5), for a total of 9,416. With 8.3m people, London has 14% of the UK population, 43% of the 19m in the ten British conurbations over 500,000. Let’s assume conservatively that NOx deaths are all in these cities, so scaling up we get an annual total of 13,458. Dividing by 2.2 m tonnes, we get a death rate of 6,117 per million tonnes. That gives us the worldwide total for VW of between 1,450 and 5,803 deaths.

[Update 25 September. Kevin Drum has come up with another estimate of global excess deaths: 3,700. He used the back of a different envelope and an actual spreadsheet. This confirms that we are in the right ballpark, pending research by professionals.]

[Update 2 25 September. The British government has released (on the same day as the Labour leadership election!) a national estimate of deaths from NO2 pollution: 23,500. So we can forget the London stuff and directly derive a death rate of 10,682 per million tonnes. The world range is now between 2,533 and 10,134.]

Contemplate these numbers for a minute. It’s not a good estimate, and every step in the calculation added extra uncertainty. But the errors are likelier to be on the downside than the upside. Epidemiologists are conservative folks, especially when their findings upset powerful lobbies. People die from asthma in Brighton and other British towns below my arbitrary cutoff. A lot of the British NOx is emitted from tall power station chimneys, where it is diluted and blown over to an ungrateful Scandinavia: the car emissions are at ground and lung level, and proportionately far more harmful. I have left out the fine particles; not because they don’t kill too, but because it’s not clear whether the VW emissions rigging led to an increase there as well as in NOx. I maintain that the estimate must be the right order of magnitude. Volkswagen have probably killed thousands of people. Those they merely made very sick are in the tens of thousands. Mark is right to call for criminal prosecution and bankruptcy.

[Update 25 September. I am moderating my views on the desirability of bankruptcy, see the comments. In any case it won’t happen. It is is still worth agitating for negligent shareholders to take a real hit and ensure a radical culture change in the company. This means several years’ worth of net profits, which were  €10.9 billion for VW in 2014.]

My headline is sensationalist but not false. We tend to think of respiratory disease as a problem restricted to older people, but that’s a mistake. UCLA Professor Beate Ritz:

This article focuses on health effects that ambient and traffic related air pollution has on pregnant women, their infants, and young children. [….] Evidence is accumulating that environmental exposures can cause infants to be born premature (before 37 weeks of gestation) or low weight (less than 2500 grams, or 5.5 pounds), or to be born with certain birth defects. These babies are far more likely to die in infancy, and those who survive have high risks of brain, respiratory, and digestive problems in early life.

The EPA’s emissions tests were faulty. But they were good enough to keep diesel cars to 3% of the US market, saving hundreds of lives. It was as big a deal as the FDA’s great stand against thalidomide.

We can be sure that prosecutors have already opened large files on the case. I imagine the conversations.

Prosecutor #1: I’m looking at RICO for this. We need to catch the men in suits who ordered the crime, not just the Dilberts who coded it. I like the bit about impounding the assets once we indict.

Prosecutor #2: How about charges of second-degree felony murder? The felony is conspiracy to defraud. I can make it stick in California law as “inherently dangerous” like running a meth lab or setting fire to a car. The deaths aren’t even accidental; VW knew that air pollution is harmful, even if they didn’t know at the time how much.

Prosecutor #1: Our big problem is getting the perps extradited. I reckon we will have to trade my RICO charge to get this, as Winterkorn * may be able to challenge it as contrary to the German constitution. Once we’ve got them here, we plea bargain your murder charge to get 10 years for the open-and-shut conspiracy.

I may well have got this wrong – American prosecutors are probably nowhere near this soft.

* Footnote

Martin Winterkorn has just resigned as VW CEO. He presents this as nobly falling on his sword to protect the company, as he knew nothing and wasn’t CEO at the time. Hah. He was responsible for technical development at Volkswagen from 1996, at board level from 2000. Earlier he had worked as an engineer for electronics supplier Bosch.  “I am a lazy incompetent, and only came into the office for the free coffee”? More likely his personal lawyer has pointed out that from yesterday his interests and Volkswagen’s are opposed – the company needs whole flocks of scapegoats, including bellwethers, and he wants to stay out of American jail. If it were me, I’d be looking at Caribbean islands without extradition treaties with the USA. Cuba can be nice.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “Volkswagen tötet Babys”

  1. If my memory and knowledge is correct, there's a tradeoff between NO2 and particulates (I know there's one with CO2).

    The basic issue is that more efficient combustion (higher temps and pressures) produces more NO2 and less of the other pollutants.

  2. "√American prosecutors are probably nowhere near this soft" — Oh, what delightful joke you tell.

    We also know that unemployment, bankruptcy and losing your home kill people. The only hope for prosecution is in the areas where VW has created bad political blood by publicly stating it's not opposed to unions.

    1. Forced bankruptcy – wiping out the shareholders – is most unlikely. VW's market cap is now under $100bn, but it's still very large. Even if it did happen I don't see why it would lead to mass unemployment. The factories, offices, engineering teams, IP and brands would be bought and operated by somebody else. VW sales are presumably taking a hit from the revelations, which will cause job losses, but that has nothing to do with the prosecution.

      1. The problem with a bankruptcy is that the transactional cost, the lawyers, advisors, etc., coupled with the limitations on the business being able to effectively operate during the bankruptcy (e.g., planning for improvements to the product, for instance, which in the case of autos requires years of pre-planning) make it impracticable. That's why the U.S. had to bailout GM and Chrysler.

        1. This is a good point. In any case the German government will not allow VW to close its doors. That does not mean US prosecutors should at this point self-limit their ambitions. It's a huge company, and proportional punishment has to be on a large scale. Bankruptcy is more of a negotiating threat to secure significant damage to negligent stockholders. How about $5bn in compensation to customers, $10bn in fines, and $10bn in a global health fund targeted at air pollution victims? That's about a quarter of the value of the company, and would not bankrupt it.

          1. First, there will likely be both German and US (and, probably, other nations) bankruptcy proceedings. Some of those types of claims may get thrown out in a bankruptcy, others perhaps not. And, the claims that are rejected in one country's bankruptcy proceeding may be accepted in another country's and vice versa.

            Second, and this bears some examination, the reason that the US had to bail out GM and Chrysler is that so many suppliers would have gone under if those two companies failed, Ford, which was in good financial condition, would have failed. Many of the VM cars produced in the US use US suppliers. So, not only will US employees lose jobs (remember the Arthur Andersen bankruptcy), but US companies will get whacked pretty badly as well.

          2. GM went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy/reorganization. I think there's some confusion between bankruptcy when you can't pay all your debts but still have some profitable operations, and bankruptcy when the only thing to do is shut down, sell your assets and pay off as much as you can. I could see VW fitting into the former category under American law for their American subsidiary. Not sure how liability relates back to Germany and German law.

  3. If these people get a light slap on the wrist or worse… walk, imagine just how screwed our guinea pig prole butts are for ur crime of allowing self-centered self-serving and callous so called “Elites” have all this unregulated POWER.
    If they buy their way out of this (and that IS their only hope) Then we can fully expect much more and much worse things to come from such a thoroughly corrupt corporate world.

  4. My criticism of the death toll analyses is they don't distinguish between deaths caused by legal and illegal emissions. The latter predominate in the US, but it's less clear in Europe with lower emission standards. VW won't be liable for deaths caused by legal emissions, even though they raise rather obvious ethical problems.

    1. As you say, it's a legal distinction rather than an ethical one. Assuming all the cars had the same software – and VW themselves are suggesting this – they were all technically capable of complying with the high US standard. VW chose not to apply it, in the interests of performance (morally indifferent) and fuel economy (a moral good, but not in the same league as saving life). So they are morally culpable,

      Can the US deaths (Kevin Drum is now up to 170) be isolated from the much larger number elsewhere, in assessing the fines and punitive damages in US courts? Prosecutors will try to introduce worldwide deaths to show the scale of VW's reckless conspiracy. Defence lawyers will try to have the evidence thrown out.

      I strongly suspect that only US prosecutors will have the cojones to bring individual criminal prosecutions. In this, they will be de facto be acting on behalf of non-American victims. So for once I hope they live up to their ruthless reputation.

      1. "and fuel economy (a moral good, but not in the same league as saving life)."__Hm, couldn't it be? Have you run the numbers on how much fuel was saved, and how many lives were saved by not having to supply that fuel? Assuming the dirty mode got a couple miles to the gallon extra, that's about 800 million gallons of diesel fuel that didn't get burnt.

        How many lives does it cost to make that much diesel fuel?

        1. Taking your 800m gallons, at $2.50 a gallon the fuel cost is $2bn. A common value for a human life used in cost-benefit analysis is IIRC $3m, which with Kevin Drum's 3,700 lives makes $11.1bn. The illness costs will be of a similar magnitude to the death costs, and more objective. (Consider the lifetime health costs of a single brain-damaged child.) So the monetary comparison is a clear win for the pollution controls. The CO2 increase would be a worry except that NOx is a much worse GHG, so it's unlikely there was a big difference there.

          You do the calculations of the lives lost in oil production if you want to make an argument as opposed to a debating point. I'm doing my little bit to close down the business.

          1. James, you seem to be under the impression that I had some pre-conceived notion of how the numbers would work out, and would be disappointed that they still show VW to be guilty.


            You're doing cost benefit analysis, you need to include the benefit. Just because your heart is pure, and your cause is just, doesn't mean you're entitled to skip doing the math right. That's a bad path to go down. That was my only point. Here was this obvious benefit from what VW did, and you were omitting it from your calculations.

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