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Coming clean on corruption’s links to pollution

A common link lies in VW’s emissions cheating and the air-quality alerts in China, India, and Indonesia. Arrogant dishonesty can lead to pollution. As VW now admits, leaders must learn to act with humility.

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Matthias Mueller, CEO of Volkswagen, speaks during a press conference of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Dec. 10,

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Rarely does the leader of a country or corporation link character virtue with air pollution. But on Thursday the new chief executive of Volkswagen, Matthias Müller, did just that in his first explanation of what the German car company will now do after being caught in October altering the software in millions of its cars to cheat on emissions tests. In addition to new procedures aimed at preventing employees from bending the rules, Mr. Müller said VW must learn to operate with “humility.”

An arrogant dishonesty lies at the root of much of the world’s environmental problems, and VW is not alone in admitting it. In three of the most populous nations, China, India, and Indonesia, an acute crisis over air pollution has led to demands for more action against corrupt officials who allow polluters to operate freely. The linkages are not hard to find.

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In China, officials recently admitted they had lied about statistics on coal burning. The country has burned as much as 17 percent more coal than previously stated. In addition, the city of Beijing issued its highest-level alert for air pollution this week. Critics say corruption had caused too many coal-fired power plants to be built near the capital. The evidence lies in a government anti-corruption campaign launched in 2012. A quarter of the top officials in state-run enterprises charged with corruption had worked in the energy industries.

With an unusual contriteness for a Communist Party official, Beijing’s mayor, Wang Anshun, has appealed for public help. “We must accept supervision from the public and the media, in order to win the battle against the imminent heavy air pollution,” he said.

In Indonesia, hundreds of illegal forest fires have created a dense haze over parts of Southeast Asia, curbing flights and damaging investment. The fires were set to make way for commercial plantations, a practice outlawed in 2009 but difficult to prevent in a country where bribery is widespread. President Joko Widodo, elected last year with grass-roots support for his anti-graft reputation, has made little progress in rolling back a culture of graft among the political elite.

India’s capital of New Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, has tried to curb truck traffic through the city but to little effect. About a third of the bad air comes from diesel trucks. But enforcement is weak as bribery of police by truck drivers is all too common. Such corruption led to the election this year of an anti-corruption leader, Arvind Kejriwal, as chief minister of Delhi.

Government dishonesty is now even linked to global warming. At the climate-change talks in Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the biggest global challenge is corruption and bad governance. And on Dec. 9, International Anti-Corruption Day, the group of wealthy nations known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development made a statement linking corruption to climate change.

VW’s character correction for its emissions cheating is a welcome move in this global concern about pollution and corruption. Virtue is not only its own reward but rewarding for the environment, too.