VW Pivot to Electric Vehicles Seen as Blessing for Climate

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By Dean Scott

Nov. 3 — The emissions scandal surrounding Volkswagen AG's diesel vehicles may be a blessing in disguise for efforts to curb global climate change—if the automaker makes good on its pledge to stake much of its future on electric vehicles, the United Nation's top climate official said Nov. 3.

“I am actually delighted about Volkswagen,” said Christiana Figueres, who heads the United Nations climate secretariat. The controversy has forced VW in recent weeks to back an array of electric vehicle platforms—including a much longer range electric vehicle that could travel a “radius” of 300 kilometers (186 miles).

The automaker has not clarified whether by “radius” it means how far those vehicles will be able to travel on a single charge.

VW announced Oct. 13 a “reorientation” of its diesel strategy and development, which will switch to alternative clean diesel technologies but by no means abandon diesel vehicles. But it also vowed to build a standardized platform to more easily adapt electric and plug-in hybrid technologies onto an array of car and light-truck models and pledged its next-generation Phaeton will be sold as an electric-only vehicle.

“Well, now we have a little revolution under way,” said Figueres, who oversees UN talks toward a global climate deal more than 200 nations will try to reach at December talks in Paris. The head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change spoke at a forum held by the Christian Science Monitor on prospects for the global deal.

Broadening Appeal of Electric Vehicles

VW has been battling allegations that it equipped vehicles with devices that allowed its diesel engines to pass emissions tests for nitrogen oxides despite emitting as much as 40 times the allowable limit under normal driving conditions.

The Environmental Protection Agency alleged Sept. 18 that VW had sold nearly 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. that contained the devices to defeat emissions testing; it has since alleged the devices were used in a broader array of models, including Audi and Porsche vehicles

While the German automaker has not been at the forefront of electric vehicles to the degree others such as Tesla Motors have been, the pivot by Volkswagen—which is German for “people's car” Figueres noted—is likely to have a far greater impact.

“Tesla is certainly opening up very new ground, but Tesla, as we all know, is not exactly the people's vehicle,” the UN official said.

Agreement Needs Teasing Out

Figueres said she is not overly concerned about the status of the negotiations and efforts to revise the draft text of the deal going into the Nov. 30–Dec. 11 Paris talks.

A week of negotiations in Bonn, Germany—the last round before the Paris summit—produced few significant compromises and more than doubled what had been a 20-page draft agreement going into those talks (206 DEN A-17, 10/26/15).

“The purpose of any political negotiation is to displease all” of the countries to some degree, but the goal, she said, is to “have everyone walking out of the room feeling equally comfortable” with progress.

Figueres said the foundation of the Paris deal, which if agreed to would be the first climate accord in which developed and developing nations alike take action to address climate change, is all in the text negotiators produced in Bonn. “I see the agreement there—but it needs to be tweaked and teased out,” the UN official said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com