The EU referendum campaign may be dominating British politics to the exclusion of virtually all else, but life goes on.
Or, to be more specific, issues that affect life and death go on. One of them is air pollution, a factor in the endlessly postponed decision on airport expansion in London (we’re promised a verdict over the summer). But there is an even more pressing air pollution problem: diesel emissions from the vehicles on British roads. This week the Transport Secretary has hinted that the government may increase the tax on diesel to help deal with it. But is that enough to tackle what a committee of MPs has called the ‘public health emergency’ caused by diesel?
Over the last ten years or so there has been a huge increase in the number of diesel vehicles in Britain. Back in 2006 there were around a million and half; now there are about eleven million. The number of new diesel vehicles sold now exceeds the number of petrol vehicles.
It’s not hard to see how this has come about. Diesel vehicles are around 20% more efficient in their use of fuel than petrol vehicles and they emit far less of the gases that contribute to global warming. That’s why, at a time when governments were beginning to become seriously concerned about global warming, it seemed sensible to encourage drivers to switch to diesel. Or at least, that’s what Gordon Brown thought when he was chancellor. In the 2001 budget he cut the duty on low-sulphur diesel by 3p a litre. The cost of the tax disc for diesel cars was also reduced.
Even at the time, though, it was recognised that there was a drawback to diesel. It might be a better fuel than petrol for anyone concerned about global warming, but diesel was not great for air pollution because diesel engines pump out greater volumes of nitrogen oxide and of ‘particulates’, tiny black particles that spread into the air we breathe. Nonetheless, it was believed that the boffins were getting on top of this problem and that these emissions from diesel engines would be reduced on new vehicles to the point where they would not even be detectable.
That’s what we all thought was happening until the VW emission scandal erupted last year. It emerged that the giant German car manufacturer had installed software in its new models that would indicate almost no malign emissions when the vehicles were tested in laboratory conditions even though they would be continuing to pump the stuff out when on the road. Other manufacturers are suspected of being guilty of the same trick.
The result is that diesel vehicles in Britain are now emitting four times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide and twenty times the level of particulates. Air pollution exceeds legal limits in twenty-five British cities. These pollutants are harmful to people’s lungs, heart and brains. A recent report published jointly by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimates that 40,000 people are dying prematurely every year in Britain as a result air pollution, much of it due to diesel emissions. The cross-party select committee on the environment, food and rural affairs, recently described the diesel emissions issue as ‘a public health emergency’.
Last year a group campaigning on behalf of victims of air pollution beat the government in a legal case that went to the Supreme Court which ordered ministers to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission, the body that overseas the issue in the EU’s 28 countries. But the Commission’s own conduct has come under strong criticism. As a result, it is alleged, of heavy lobbying by the European car industry (and especially the German car industry), the Commission is allowing new diesel vehicles to emit double its own recommended limit until 2021 and even afterwards to exceed it by 50%. In other words, the interests of European carmakers are being allowed to trump the health of Europe’s citizens, it’s claimed.
It is in this context that the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, has said that the government should ‘consider’ reversing the tax cuts offered to users of diesel fuel in order to produce an about-turn in the way the incentive works. But this has been challenged on at least two grounds. In the first place, it’s argued that tinkering with the taxation of diesel will have far too small an effect on the use of diesel, especially now so many people have made the investment in shifting from petrol to diesel cars. But more fundamentally such a move is seen as unfair. It’s not the fault of Britain’s car drivers, it’s argued, that they responded to the encouragement of their government to shift to diesel, or that they accepted in good faith the claims of the manufacturers that the problem of toxic diesel emissions had been disposed of. So why should they have to pay the cost of cleaning up through higher diesel prices?
A more radical proposal is that the government should organise a scrappage scheme (such as the Labour government introduced during the recession to get people to trade in old cars for new ones) to encourage owners of older diesel cars to trade them in for newer petrol vehicles. The obvious problem with that is the cost. As the RAC Foundation has pointed out, if the government wanted to clear around 400,000 diesel vehicles off Britain’s roads and offered owners of these vehicles an average of £2,000 a throw to do so, the cost would be £800m. At a time when progress on cutting the government’s deficit is faltering, that’s not a proposal George Osborne is likely to view very kindly.
So what should be done? How seriously should we be taking this ‘public health emergency’? Should the European Commission be taking a tougher line with the European car industry in forcing it more quickly to abide by its own emission levels? Should the British government impose higher taxes on users of diesel even though government has itself encouraged the use of diesel? And who should pay for the clean-up: you as a diesel user, or you as a taxpayer?