HomeInfrastructureTransportThe quick fix to the toxic air crisis? Make the polluter pay

The quick fix to the toxic air crisis? Make the polluter pay

11422536206_ccd9ad9e21_kThis post is by Greg Archer, director, clean vehicles at Transport & Environment.

After being forced to announce its controversial plans to tackle air pollution, ministers have been quick to blame the previous government for the mess caused by encouraging diesel car sales. But ministers have repeatedly refused to point the finger, or act against the true culprit, the car industry, that has for years sold cars that pass lab tests but often produce ten times or more pollution on the road. As a result, they have contributed to the toxic air that is killing up to 40,000 people a year in the UK.

Mind the gap: discrepancies between test and on road data
As diesel sales soared in the 1990s experts did raise the alarm; but progressive tightening of EU car emissions regulations in Euro steps should have fixed the problem.  For diesel cars, nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in tests were lowered from 0.55g per km in 1995 (Euro 2) to 0.08g per km in 2015 (Euro 6). But, in practice, the most recent on road data shows new diesel cars are still producing, on average, 0.55g per km. Car makers claim obsolete (and soon to be replaced) tests are to blame. But the Dieselgate scandal has exposed how car makers fit ineffective and undersized exhaust treatment systems to their cars to save a few hundred pounds. They then abuse a loophole in the rules by switching these systems down or off most of the time cars are driven on the road to prevent them breaking down. As a result there are now more than five million dirty diesel cars on the UK’s roads.

Why didn’t national authorities stop car makers abusing tests and rules in these ways? Because the industry has captured the regulators, who either turn a blind eye to what national champions are doing (Italy with Fiat or Germany for VW); or, as with the UK Vehicle Certification Agency, because millions in fees are being earned for approving cars and they won’t bite the hand that feeds them. Governments are also anxious not to offend a powerful industry and an important local employer.

New EU rules are intended to strengthen and bring consistency to how cars are approved across Europe, but a majority of governments want to retain the status quo despite the Dieselgate debacle and oppose proposals by the European Commission and Parliament to make the system fairer and more transparent.

What are the fixes?
In the 1990s, faced with alarming levels of air pollution, the UK introduced an innovative solution: local air quality management. It gave local authorities the responsibility to assess and, where necessary, develop local plans to fix the problem. Twenty years of failed policy later, after being harassed by the European Commission and repeatedly humiliated in the Supreme Court, the government is again consulting on a new plan involving more local air quality management. This simply won’t work quickly enough – national action must complement local plans supported by strengthened powers, tools and resources.

The possible scrappage scheme highlighted in the government’s new plans will equally fail to deliver meaningful benefits. People driving ten year old cars generally can’t afford brand new ones and drive many fewer miles a year than those with new cars. Besides the real world emissions of a new diesel aren’t much lower than an old Euro 4 model (0.55 and 0.8g per km respectively). The government would do better to extend support for the purchase of electric cars and vans to fleets and businesses that are currently unable to access these incentives.

Another proposal, retrofitting clean technology to old vehicles, is equally unlikely to have much effect, except possibly for old buses that have high emissions and do many miles in urban areas. Past retrofit schemes for cars, vans and trucks were poorly implemented, delivered minimal real world savings at high costs and were open to fraud. We simply need fewer diesel trucks and more electric vans and cargo-bikes in our cities than tax reform and diesel bans would deliver. The plan to charge or ban dirty diesels from cities would have worked but is political dynamite.

Car makers should be required to act
The most obvious missing element from the government’s consultation is a requirement for car makers to recall and fix the dirty diesels already on the road. By reprogramming exhaust treatment systems, they could be made to work much more efficiently. Components may need to be improved or replaced more often but the car makers should foot the bill. Emissions would be more than halved as a result and taxpayers would not have to pay. Instead, the government proposes to reward the polluting car makers by helping drivers to buy new cars.

We need to end the slaughter caused by breathing toxic air now, not in ten years. The only effective short term fixes are to force car makers to improve the performance of existing diesel cars; and to implement diesel bans and charges in polluted cities, only exempting the very cleanest models (not all new cars). Anything else is tinkering and won’t deliver the targets as quickly as the law and the Supreme Court requires the government to do.

[Image: City of London – Traffic, courtesy of Kiran SRK from Flickr Creative Commons]

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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