The David Cameron government is giving final touches to new air quality plans after Britain’s Supreme Court ordered it to take urgent steps to tackle air pollution, which could include phasing out diesel.
From being touted as the preferred fuel by former chancellor Gordon Brown in 1998, the fuel has now been demonised after new studies showed its adverse effects.
Labour has now admitted its government got it wrong when it announced incentives for diesel cars. The emission rigging scandal of Volkswagen diesel cars earlier this year added to the growing voices against the fuel.
Studies show diesel cars produce 15% less CO2 than petrol, but emit four times more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and 22 times more particulates, the tiny particles that penetrate lungs, brain and heart.
“Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars,” said Martin Williams, professor of air quality research at King’s College London and former head of the government’s air quality science unit.
“The (emission) tests were simply not stringent enough. They were devised by a UN committee based in Geneva called the World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations, which was dominated by people from the car industry,” he told the Sunday Times in July.
“What’s more, it was easy for some manufacturers to calibrate cars’ computers to spot when the car was being tested and reduce emissions until the test was over,” Williams further said.
In April, the Supreme Court found Britain had breached Article 13 of the EU Air Quality Directive which demanded NO2 levels be cut to 40 micrograms per cubic metre by 2010. Currently, 38 of 43 zones in the UK are in breach of the EU directive.
Britain has 11.8 million diesel cars in use, making it one of the world’s largest diesel car fleets. The transport industry is keeping its fingers crossed as the government finalises plans for better air quality. Phasing out diesel will have major implications for freight and other sectors.