When it comes to having choices life in Britain appears at first to be saturated. Whether it’s the cereal we will have for breakfast or the type of milk we put on it, there are options to suit us all.
But there is one thing we have no choice over – the air we breathe. With nine in ten people in Britain living in areas where air breaches legal limits people cannot escape these emissions. We are dependent on the Government to guarantee our right to clean air – yet the choices ministers have made to date are so bad their plans to tackle air pollution are illegal.
Today the Chancellor will deliver this year’s Autumn Budget, He has the chance to take real action to clean up our air – but only if he chooses to take it.
There is evidence that diesel cars produce more carbon dioxide than petrol cars over their lifetime. Defra acknowledges that the number of diesel vehicles on our roads has acerbated air pollution. Diesel fuel is also responsible for invisible yet extremely harmful nitrogen oxide air pollution, also known as NOx – with diesel responsible for 80% of NOx coming from our roads. Shockingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, all the main car manufacturers are breaching European NOx limits – by more than nine times for Renault and more than six times for Ford. Meanwhile levels of nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, in the UK have broken legal limits every year since 2010 - with transport responsible for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK last year.
The health impacts alone of air pollution are estimated to cost the taxpayer £27.5billion every year
In the past year we have seen example after example of how the car industry systematically cheats emissions tests. Its track record of delivering diesel vehicles that actually reduce pollution emissions is unsurprisingly poor. This means that not only are consumers being mislead, but despite stronger legislation on car emissions, actual emissions are falling very slowly.
The health impacts alone of air pollution are estimated to cost the taxpayer £27.5billion every year according to Government estimates. Worst affected are the most vulnerable - the elderly, infirm, and children. Air pollution contributes to asthma in otherwise healthy children, and stunts lung growth. In older people it is linked to strokes, heart disease and diabetes.
Increasing taxes on new diesel cars would reflect the additional cost to society of dirty diesel engines – and send a message to this industry that it needs to clean-up. A one off first year rate of £800 could generate £500 billion a year, while making sure people who bought diesel cars in good faith aren’t penalised. Of course we should also be helping people get rid of their old diesel cars. A properly targeted Government scrappage scheme. funded by the tax on new diesel cars, could see people get their money back or receive help to pay for public transport or low emission car club membership.
When it comes to getting rid of all petrol and diesel cars, the UK’s target for a ban in 2040 falls well behind the rest of the world. With Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, India and China considering bans by 2025 or 2030, Britain could and should introduce its ban by 2030 at the latest. Investment in public transport and safe routes for walking and cycling will also be essential to make sure people have real alternatives to driving.
Underpinning all of this work is the urgent need for a new Clean Air Act, fit for the 21st century, and which enshrines air quality standards in UK law post Brexit. We all have the right to trust the air we breathe. In the Autumn Budget the Chancellor has the opportunity to take us closer to a future where this is a reality – I hope he takes it.
Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party