You’d think the government would be doing everything it could to dig us out of the diesel mess. Diesel vehicles are a major source of the illegal levels of pollution in our towns and cities – pollution that can trigger heart and asthma attacks and increases the risk of people ending up in hospital or dying as a result.
Air pollution has been linked to premature births and can cause children to grow up with smaller lungs, leading to lifelong health problems. And now a growing body of evidence is highlighting how air pollution not only affects our physical health, but could also be damaging our brains and mental health.
So is there a system in place helping people with a speedy switch from dirty vehicles to cleaner forms of transport? No. Instead, we still have a tax system that incentivises people to buy them.
And it turns out this was put in place by ministers who were fully aware of the inherent health risks of the policy.
An innocent mistake?
These incentives have been in place for nearly 20 years. Papers released under a FOI request show that ministers and civil servants under Tony Blair’s Labour government were well aware when putting the measures in place that diesel pollution affects air quality, and harms people’s health. They went ahead regardless, saying they could change policy in future budgets if the evidence came to people’s attention.
This is a scandal. It is truly unbelievable that ministers knew full well that diesel was damaging to people’s health but still ploughed ahead with policy that populated this country’s roads with diesel vehicles.
The policy did what was intended. Changes made in 2001 resulted in sales of diesel cars rising from 18% of new car sales to over 50% in 2011, which is why so many diesel cars are on the road today.
This is a sorry state of affairs. But more astonishing is that nothing has been done to correct this mistake in the last 15 years, despite a growing body of evidence on the health effects of pollution and the failure of diesel vehicles to comply with emission limits. The government has lost two court cases and been ordered by the highest court of this country to urgently come up with plans to clean up our illegal levels of pollution. Yet still they are dragging their feet and ducking the difficult decisions that are needed. That’s why we’ve been forced to begin legal action for a third time.
Diesel cars: Does newer mean cleaner?
There is no point buying the latest model of a diesel car either. Car manufacturers have failed to control emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). Even the newest diesel cars are not clean. Recent analysis has shown that only 10% of the newest cars meet the official emission limits on the road, while the rest emit up to 12 times over the limit. The most polluting diesel cars emit more pollution than a modern diesel bus.
Moving beyond diesel
In the latest clean air plan, ministers have shunted responsibility onto local authorities. They need to stop passing the buck and actually put the people of this country first. Ministers have knowingly jeopardised our health and they mustn’t let it happen again. The Budget is a golden opportunity for the current Government to make good on its duty to clean up our air. With the right policies, the Chancellor must urgently abolish the incentives that have condemned the country to illegally poor air quality for years.
The Government also needs to make the polluter pay – which in this case is the car manufacturers, who have successfully lobbied against effective pollution controls and gamed weak regulations to produce cars which pass laboratory tests but emit absurdly high amounts of pollution on the road. Having helped get us into this mess, it is high time they helped get us out of it. In Germany, automakers are contributing a quarter of a billion euros to a clean air fund. In the UK? Not a single penny.
It would be inexcusable not to take the strongest action now. We need a national network of Clean Air Zones to take the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities. The government’s own analysis shows that this is the only effective way to achieve air quality standards, but they don’t want to take responsibility for diesel drivers being hit with charges. Instead local authorities will have to take this decision.
One policy area for which they can’t avoid responsibility is the tax system. The Chancellor needs to help people to switch to cleaner forms of transport. Vehicle excise duty and company car tax should be reformed, based on the pollution that vehicles actually emit on the road, not the now discredited “Euro 6” standard. This should encourage buyers to abandon diesel in favour of zero emission vehicles. Alongside this, we need to see a targeted scrappage scheme brought in to help people on lower incomes and small business owners, who bought diesel vehicles in good faith, to move to cleaner alternatives.
It is a disgrace that nearly 20 years ago ministers brought in policies that they knew would harm our health. This week this government has the chance to finally hit the brakes on the dash for diesel and put the UK on the road to a cleaner and healthier future.