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What We Can All Learn From the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal

Volkswagen already generates billions in profits every year, so many found it disturbing when news broke that the car manufacturer had flat-out cheated. The entire process was elaborately planned: Volkswagen used a software program that causes a vehicle's emissions to appear below the legal limit when monitoring equipment is hooked up, while also decreasing the exhaust's clean filtering system when the monitoring equipment is not attached. The result produced emissions approximately 10 to 40 times the legal limit.

Volkswagen's motive is predictably financial—since cars are generally less efficient when being filtered properly, Volkswagen used this software to tout impressive EPA fuel economy estimates and provide an additional incentive to consumers mulling the purchase of a diesel vehicle. This scandal is yet another in the wake of many corporate mishaps, from CEOs raising prescription drug costs for no reason other than profit to this recent event, which may end up costing Volkswagen up to $87 billion.

Volkswagen logo
Photo by Karen Roe.

While this scandal provokes plenty of ire about greed being the central component of capitalism, the most proactive response is to focus on what can be done by the individual or business who, unlike Volkswagen, sincerely aims to improve the environment.

Much of the anger directed toward this scandal is not just because it’s another company price-gouging or fudging numbers, but because the 10 to 40 times more harmful emissions can negatively impact us, our friends and families.

The Scandal’s Cost in Lives

“Scandal” is one word for this, but others can rightly refer to it as an environmental disaster—as it has certainly resulted in deaths. The New York Times estimates the death count since 2008 ranges from 106 to 146 due to the amount of additional tailpipe emissions, which are projected at 46 thousand tons. MIT professor Noelle Eckley Selin thinks there could be up to 40 more deaths than those numbers.

It’s clear that emissions are causing people to die. That’s an issue that should be at the forefront of this scandal instead of the continual non-progress created by conversations revolving around greed and capitalism—these concerns are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. But individuals and businesses do have the power to lower emissions.

The Benefits of Lowering Emissions

The same New York Times report noted the work of three researchers who analyzed the correlation between mortality rates and decreased nitrogen oxide emissions. A decrease in those emissions by 350 tons per year correlated with a decrease in prescription drug spending and a decrease in deaths to "five per 100 thousand people." It’s ironic and maddening that more investment in reducing these emissions could potentially help resolve two scandals in the news—specifically the Volkswagen disaster and the horrific rise in prescription drug prices.

What You Can Do to Lower Emissions

Many in the world feel more compassion for the environment than Volkswagen. Just making a few changes in your life can help the environment tremendously. The EPA offers useful tips in addition to a green vehicle guide that can steer one toward a truly eco-friendly car instead of one faking test results.

Other tips include not spending more than 30 seconds idling, reducing weight in your cabin and trunk area, getting regular tune-ups and even checking your tires — under-inflation and tire wear results in higher greenhouse gases and increased air polluting emissions.

Another important detail to note is the use of public transit: It’s an existing carbon footprint that is more environmentally friendly when more people use it at a time. Options range from rail lines like All Aboard Florida and Amtrak to public bus lines. You may be able to get around on public transit, depending on where you live — if you live in an area with sparse public transit, there are still many other ways to help the environment.

Although it will be difficult for consumers to act as corporate watchdogs and prevent these types of scandals from occurring in the future, a little effort from a lot of people can significantly reduce emissions and potentially save hundreds or thousands around the world.

Kayla Matthews is a health and wellness blogger who loves jogging, yoga and hiking. Follow Kayla on Google+ and Twitter to read all of her latest posts.