The last Labour government positively encouraged people to buy diesel cars. Now they are being blamed for thousands of premature deaths, leaving the owners of diesel cars facing an uncertain future
“I am sorry. We were wrong.” Six words you do not often hear from a politician, but exactly what Barry Gardiner, Labour’s then shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change said in 2016.
He was referring to the last Labour government’s policy of encouraging motorists to trade in their petrol cars for diesel vehicles – which turned out to be one of their biggest environmental mistakes. “Hands up,” said Mr Gardiner,
“There is absolutely no question that the decision we took was the wrong decision. But,” he added, keen to at least get an excuse in, “At the time we did not have the evidence that we subsequently did.”
Speaking to Channel 4, Mr Gardiner said that the Labour government had expected cleaner diesel engines, which would significantly reduce CO2 emissions and therefore make any other problems a price worth paying.
The misguided policy stemmed from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, based on the premise that global warming existed and that it had been caused by CO2 emissions. Gordon Brown, who at the time was Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in 1998 that “diesel cars should attract less vehicle tax than their petrol equivalents because of their better CO2 performance.”
In 2001, Brown reduced vehicle tax for all cars with low CO2 emissions, giving company car buyers – who are responsible for half of new car purchases – a clear incentive to switch to diesel. And that was the start of the problem…
Diesel cars do indeed produce less CO2 than petrol cars – around 15% – but it now transpires that they also produce around four times more NO2 (nitrogen dioxide – a significant air pollutant which adversely affects human health) and 22 times more particulates – tiny particles that penetrate the brain, lungs and heart. As Barry Gardiner admitted,
“It was right to move away from CO2, but the impact has been a massive public health problem.”
Having eaten a large slice of humble pie, he then reverted to type by lambasting the current government for not doing anything about the problem. But it now looks as though the government is being forced into action, and it will not be good news for drivers of diesel vehicles.
Britain is on its final warning from the European Commission for breaching air pollution limits, with emissions from diesel vehicles held to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year. Unsurprisingly, senior MPs are pressing for higher road taxes on diesel vehicles, despite motoring organisations warning – as they do – that such a move would hit motorists struggling to cope with higher petrol prices and depress the resale value of diesel vehicles.
The ‘Toxin tax’ arrives
However, it may not be the government that acts first: cities may beat them to it, with the government suddenly cast in the role of protecting the diesel owner.
An ultra-low emission zone will come into force in London in April 2019 with a £24 a day fee for some drivers, with one road in Brixton, South London, reportedly hitting its annual pollution target in just five days.
This will be compounded by the so-called ‘toxin tax’ of £20 a day, rolled out in many cities across the UK.
Understandably diesel owners are now angry and confused at being singled for both criticism and financial penalties, after previously being encouraged to buy their vehicles.
It’s not just diesel…
London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced recently that there would also be a £12.50 charge – on top of the existing congestion charge – in Central London: this will be levied on petrol cars that do not meet Euro 4 standards and diesel cars that do not meet Euro 6 standards.
This will hit the majority of petrol cars that are more than 13 years old in 2019: however, it is types of diesel that continue to be harshly penalised. The Euro 6 standards will hit most diesel cars that are just four years old in 2019. As former science minister Lord Drayshan bluntly put it, diesel cars are now seen as “Cars that kill people.”
Unsurprisingly, the motoring organisations are complaining that diesel owners are being punished for following the advice of a previous government.
So what happens now?
Theresa May has now hinted that there will be schemes to help drivers who were told that they were doing the right thing in buying a diesel car. Speaking on her recent trip to Joran and Saudi Arabia she said,
“Decisions will be taken when we produce the air quality plan. But I am very conscious of the fact that previous governments have encouraged people to buy diesel cars and we need to take that into account when we look at what to do in the future.”
While Theresa May did not set out any specific plans in her speech, some commentators have suggested that she might favour a scrappage scheme to encourage people to get rid of their diesel vehicles. But such a scheme would be hugely expensive and right now the government is far busier with negotiating Brexit.
Meanwhile, with experts blaming 10,000 premature deaths a year in London alone on diesel emissions, some councils will undoubtedly consider an outright ban. Athens, Paris and Madrid all have plans to introduce a ban on types of diesel within the next ten years, and a campaigning group called Doctors Against Diesel has already called on the London mayor to ban diesel cars in the capital.
But with respect, doctors earn rather more than most people: part-exchanging their rapidly-depreciating diesel might not be quite the problem for them that it would be for the average motorist. For now, diesel drivers can look forward to another year of newspaper headlines and stories about their cars being tracked and constantly monitored for the amount of nitrogen dioxide they produce. It is no wonder that they feel bitter as the politicians who encouraged them to buy diesel cars drive away into the sunset, offering nothing more than an apology and the claim that they did not have enough information.