Project description

The submitted story is part of our long-term investigative project on the death toll of Dieselgate. Our project aims to quantify the number of people that die and will die prematurely due to diesel emissions exceeding the EU limits. We’re in touch with researchers that help us to quantify the total (present-future) deaths likely occurring. We have just published our story about the past and current deaths. It’s the starting point of our project. The next stage is calculating future deaths. We aim to reach a cross-border mainstream audience through publishing in several European countries.
We plan to expose the death toll of the car industry influence in the EU. The VW “Dieselgate” scandal unveiled the loopholes in the cars’ emissions surveillance. Lab tests proved to be unreliable. Real on-road emissions were found higher than the EU limits. The EU Commission knew this gap since 2007. But mandatory tests in real driving conditions were only approved in 2015 and won’t be fully implemented before 2021. Worse, the new rules were written by the Commission with business representatives and endorsed by national governments, behind closed doors. Their concern was defending national economy more than health: So they decided that real driving emissions can still exceed the limits by a certain margin for a few years. We’ll count the lives potentially lost due to this extra pollution. Within the EU legal framework, the Commission and governments are only entitled to set compliance tests. But they ended up overruling cars NOx limits previously voted by the Parliament, the body elected by EU citizens and supposed to protect them.
Cars are the N.1 source of air pollution in the EU. In particular, diesel cars emit huge quantities of NOx, a gas leading to the formation of extra particular matter (PM) that causes lethal diseases. It’s possible to calculate how many people risk to die in each country as of 2015, the date when the EU decided to delay the compliance with the emission limits. In particular, we can calculate deaths due to excess NOx and deaths as if cars would have not emitted more than EU limits. The difference is the deaths number attributed to excess NOx
1) The past and current scenario (our published story)
Car makers manipulated lab tests with the complicity of national control agencies. The Commission and governments postponed real driving tests for years. And when they eventually adopted them, they took advantage of undemocratic lawmaking procedures to delay their effectiveness. The EU Parliament could use its veto to reject the decision. But it didn’t: Better a bad reform than no reform at all.
2) The future scenario (our forthcoming story)
Car makers still refuse to invest in existing technology enabling emissions reduction near or even below the EU limits. The EU put their financial interest ahead of public interest, further delaying their obligation to cut emissions. As of 2017, real driving tests apply, but only to new car models. All other cars are exempted until 2019. Also, emissions can exceed more than twice the limits until 2021.
Our project is supported by the JournalismFund. We received a grant to do the research that lead to our recent publication about the past and current deaths. We will apply for a new grant to receive ne funding to develop the next stage of our project which will consist in quantifying the number of premature deaths due to the flawed reform of the EU legislation.
Since our project stories are published in different languages by news outlets in a number of European countries, we will also launch a cross-border crowdfunding campaign in order to raise additional funding.

What makes this project innovative?

News about Dieselgate have so far covered the scandal at the international level, focusing on politics (EU institutions) and business (big names of car makers). . We want to bring this issue as close as possible to common people. Anyone would be much more interested and worried about the number of people killed by excess diesel emissions in his neighborhood rather than by just knowing which car makers breached which EU emission limits. This is precisely what our interactive map does: everyone in any European city can check which is the level of death risk near home. It makes a huge difference in terms of audience' interest and awareness, as compared to a global analysis. Both the research and the map we have done, with the help of reliable specialists, represent the first ever done investigative data visualization about the hyper-local impact of Dieselgate. Readers can see to which extent car makers' tricks affect their health in the place where they live and can make comparisons with other urban areas, both across their country and across Europe. In order to develop the map we made use of science-proof methods, throughcombining experts' accuracy with our journalistic angle. The original result shows how journalists can adopt researchers' tools to come up with findings that address the large general public, rather than just the restricted scientific community.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

Our stories published across borders (Belgium, France, Spain, Balkans),received hundreds of comments showing people's interest in understanding how Dieselgate affects their life at local level. While we are completing this submission, we are expecting new publications in Italy, UK and Germany

Source and methodology

We joined forces with a team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IASA), which has a renowned track record of studies in the field of air pollution. Together, we developed a reliable collaborative research plan. We’ll go through the following steps:
1) We calculate how much extra NOx is emitted from all the diesel cars running in a country, based on old and new rules:
For the present we use emissions reported officially by Member States.
For the future we design emission scenarios factoring in the predictable vehicles demand and fleet turnover (replacement of old with new cars, partly diesel, partly gasoline), assuming a certain compliance or gap depending on the latest emission measurements.
2) We calculate the influences of this extra NOx in each country with a so-called chemistry transport model. This accounts for regional transport through winds and rain, taking into account emissions from many other sources, notably farming and industry. As a result, we get the extra annual concentrations of NOx due to diesel car excess emissions across Europe. We also get the extra concentrations of NOx by-products, fine particles (PM) and ground level ozone, that affect human health.
3) We overlay the extra PM and ozone concentrations with the population in each country, which gives us the national exposure to these air pollutants.
4) We use epidemiological studies to correlate population exposure with an increased risk of dying prematurely because of certain diseases (differentiated by age group and sex).
5) The combination of exposure to extra concentrations and the risk of premature death gives us the actual number of premature deaths in each country due to excess car emissions.

Technologies Used

We used QGIS software to turn our excel file into a map

How to use this map
1) Use the scrolling menu top right to choose the visualization:
– Top 100 regions/cells in Europe by number of premature death per year due to NOx emissions exceeding EU limits
– Approximate premature death per region/cell due to NOx emissions exceeding EU limits per year
– Pollution from diesel cars exceeding EU limits per region/cell
– Population per region/cell
2) Zoom in to check cities in each cell
Click on a cell to see its population, the excess concentration of particulate matter due to NOx emissions from diesel cars above the EU limits and the premature death per year due to dieselgate

Project members

Stefano Valentino (based in Italy) coordinates with the researchers team and does additional research in Brussels, through interviews with EU institutions and relevant organization.
Gian Paolo Accardo (based in France) coordinates with publishing news outlets, identifying suitable topics to develop national angles, and oversees multi-language translations
Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Senior Research Scholar with the Air Quality & Greenhouse Gases (AIR) Program at IIASA, helps with data gathering and interpretation


Additional links

Project owner administration

Contributor username


Click Follow to keep up with the evolution of this project:
you will receive a notification anytime the project leader updates the project page.