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Governmentality and Environmental Rights: Regulatory Failure and the Volkswagen Emissions Fraud Case


With the widespread recognition of anthropogenic climate change resulting, in part, from an overreliance on fossil fuels, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has become a central problem of government in most Western states. At the level of the individual citizen, the micromanagement of conduct has been established through complex procedures aimed at the rational administration of environmental regulation that intersects with techniques for the administration of ourselves. That is, such an ethopolitics (see Rose 2001) locates questions of government at the level of individual environmental rights, everyday morality, and the ethics of “going green,” as well as at the level of administration, through regulations aimed at reducing car emissions. Concomitantly, the “conduct of conduct” is aimed at corporate citizens that is administered at the level of emission regulatory regimes, as well as through an ethopolitical imaginary of corporate environmental rights and citizenship that is based on, inter alia, fostering environmentally-friendly corporate identities. Drawing on a governmentality analytic, green criminology, and the automobility literatures, we examine how emissions are governed in relation to automobile users and producers. Using the Volkswagen diesel emissions fraud case (also known as “Dieselgate” and “Emissionsgate”), which began in September 2015, as an entry point, this article examines the failure of the Canadian government to monitor and adequately punish emissions violators. This failure takes place against the backdrop of a parliamentary committee proposal to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in Canadian law. Therefore, the article also evaluates the extent to which environmental rights as human rights can refigure existing approaches to environmental violence and challenge the individualization of environmental responsibility and citizenship under neoliberal forms of government.

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  1. Although our focus here is on the “Dieselgate” case, it should be noted that VW is not the only automotive company believed to have intentionally exceeded emissions regulations with their diesel engines (see Archer 2016).

  2. The absolute long-term financial impact on VW is, as of yet, unclear. Two recent developments are worth noting, however: (1) In the wake of the case, VW became the world’s largest automobile manufacturer (BBC 2017); and (2) VW has moved decisively into the electric vehicle market, as evidenced by over 10,000 pre-production orders of its new electric vehicle within twenty-four hours of its unveiling in May 2019 (CNBC 2019). Whether or not VW is genuinely interested in taking a leadership role in “greening” the automotive industry remains to be seen, as does the willingness of defrauded individuals to buy into VW's next generation of vehicles (Auffhammer 2019).

  3. We have been unable to locate estimates of the human health impacts in Canada or on nonhuman species in Canada or elsewhere.

  4. Although this analytic underpins this article, we acknowledge that there are approaches and perspectives relevant to the VW fraud case (e.g., state-corporate crime) that could be employed. For instance, Spapens (2018) utilized a state-corporate crime approach to articulate both the factors within and outside of the corporation, particularly its political influence, that likely facilitated and contributed to the perpetuation of VW’s fraud in the context of the European Union.

  5. Fuel consumption standards have also been implemented, and although they clearly have a bearing on the volume of emissions, our focus here is on the enforcement of emissions regulations specifically. As such, a discussion of these standards is beyond the scope of this particular article. For information on Canadian fuel emissions standards, see Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018); see Lynch and White (2012) for a critical political economic analysis of US standards.

  6. Although its advertising for the engine was halted and online content apparently removed once the fraud became public, we were able to access old archived VW Web sites via the Wayback Machine Internet archive, compiled by a registered nonprofit that began archiving Web sites in 1996. Given the nature of the archive, we cannot claim that we were able to access all VW Web pages relevant to the 2009–2015 TDI models, but we were able to gather ample examples of the ways in which VW “greenwashed” its products, most specifically framing its TDI vehicles as environmentally preferable to vehicles sold by its competitors.

  7. Years earlier, researchers with the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission had documented perplexing differences between standardized laboratory and on-road emissions testing of diesel vehicles (Weiss et al. 2011, 2012), pointing to the possible presence of defeat devices. For a critical analysis of regulatory nonresponse in the European context, see Spapens (2018).

  8. Our focus in this article is on environmental rights as articulated in state-level legislation and constitutions. For a more in-depth discussion of types of environmental rights, see Hiskes (2008).

  9. Whether or not it will come to fruition is uncertain. The government’s response to the Environment Committee’s recommendation has been that “the Committee did not define what such a right would mean… The Government commits to further study and stakeholder engagement on the implications of these recommendations” (Government of Canada 2018: 33).

  10. For more general discussion of the nuances of the European Commission’s role in enforcing EU law, see Andersen (2012).


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We thank the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive feedback, as well as Ayesha Mian Akram and Allison Gray for their research assistance.


This paper is part of a larger project that received funding from a University of Windsor Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grant.

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Correspondence to Amy J. Fitzgerald.

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Amy J. Fitzgerald served as the Representative Plaintiff for Volkswagen Beetle owners in the Canadian class action lawsuit against Volkswagen.

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Fitzgerald, A.J., Spencer, D. Governmentality and Environmental Rights: Regulatory Failure and the Volkswagen Emissions Fraud Case. Crit Crim 28, 43–63 (2020).

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