I have been writing about the lethal impacts of poor air quality for a decade, so I am not going to mince my words.
I did a little dance when chancellor Phillip Hammond said that £400 million would be invested in electric vehicle infrastructure, alongside an extra £100m for the plug-in car grant and £40m for research into charging.
Charging a vehicle at work will also not be considered as a benefit-in-kind.
I was even more pleased to see that the Government is reversing its longstanding support for diesel cars and vans. The first year’s excise duty will go up by one band and company car tax will increase by 1% for diesels, except for those which meet the most modern emission standard.
The cash will go towards a £220m fund for implementing much-needed local air quality measures.
But my hope that tax would be going up on diesel – as had been rumoured – were dashed.
Nevertheless, the budget of November 22 represents one of the first steps towards righting a historic wrong in backing diesel over petrol in the first place. In the days of New Labour, it was thought that the slightly lower CO2 emissions offered by diesel cars warranted support, while the tightening Euro emissions standards would deal with the pollution they left behind.
Both assumptions were dreadfully mistaken.
The notion that diesel is inherently better on climate change is old-fashioned at best. The reason is that the black carbon it puts out is a powerful ‘short-term climate forcer’, negating its CO2 benefits.
There is now little difference between the amount of CO2 emitted from modern petrol and diesel cars, anyway. And with Mazda putting a petrol compression ignition engine into production, the historic situation may now be reversed.
I barely need to rehearse the debacle of Dieselgate – which went far beyond the Volkswagen Group. Air quality experts knew there was something funny going on years before the scandal broke – I reported on it myself. There was simply far more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at the roadside than there should have been.
And let’s not forget that modern diesels come with clog-prone particulate filters (DPFs), which has encouraged a small but significant part of the population to become actively criminal. A loophole in the law allows them to be removed – it’s just that you can’t drive the car away afterwards. I should mention that removing the filter also invalidates your insurance. And your MOT, for that matter. Just say no, OK?
That said, enforcement has been laughable thus far. The first element of government to take action against filter removal was the Advertising Standards Authority, of all things. But there are signs that a crackdown could be afoot.
Meanwhile, science has built an ever-growing library of diesel’s baleful influence on our health. Convincing links between poor air quality and diabetes, psychiatric disorders in children, worsening deaths in heatwaves, poor circulation in the lungs, not to mention stroke, pneumonia and dementia have all been made in the past year or two.
While estimates vary, a figure of 30-40,000 deaths per year from poisoned air is about reasonable. And that’s just deaths – ignoring the burden of the ill health air pollution creates on society and the NHS. Yes, most of this is from particulates, with the effects of NO2 still subject to uncertainty; government advisors are still working on their final conclusions on the matter.
But to some extent, the details of 'what pollutant does what' don’t matter a huge amount. Where you get NO2 (the active ingredient in NOx), you get particulates and vice versa. Some measures to control one can fend off the other.
Now, I hear you say, drivers of diesel cars are being blamed unfairly for doing exactly what the Government wanted them to do and are now being hit by more tax and the prospect of paying to enter central London and some other cities. “Someone else must shoulder the burden, not us,” goes the cry.
At the same time, other sectors, such as road haulage, taxis and bus firms, are complaining that they are getting it in the neck from the Government’s air quality policies, partly to save it the political cost of aggravating diesel drivers. They do have a certain point.
The likes of Fair Fuel UK would have you believe that diesel cars are responsible for little roadside pollution, stating in their plea for funds for challenging London’s new T-Charge that only 11% of transport-related NOx comes from diesel cars. But this figure quotes from the London emissions inventory of 2010, produced long before the Dieselgate revelations. A broadly comparable inventory for 2013 bumped this up to 24%, projected to rise to 42% in 2020 without further action. Those figures cannot be swept under the carpet and ignored.
And if you were worried about the T-Charge, ULEZ and clean air zones – you ain’t seen nothing yet. This summer’s Air Quality Plan is just as full of holes as its predecessor, which was thrown out by the High Court for dodgy modelling and optimistic assumptions. It looks inevitable that more towns and cities will be ordered to take action, which means keeping diesel outside them and backing decarbonised transport.
Yes, a modern diesel car will get you into them all for free. But they still produce around five times more NOx on the road than the average petrol car, falling to twice as much in 2020 as new controls bite.
There really is no such thing as a clean diesel car, however convenient that would be. Dump diesel, get over it and look to the future.
Gareth Simkins is senior writer for The ENDS Report, the environmental business and policy journal