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Government must give us the certainty that diesel has had its day, sooner rather than later

Oliver Lord, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Environmental Defense Fund Europe, discusses why we need a fast and equitable transition away from diesel. This article originally appeared in the Transport Times. It has been reposted here with kind permission.

With Covid putting our health and wellbeing top of mind, we should ask ourselves a question. Is it truly acceptable for polluting diesel cars to rattle around our towns for the next 30 years?

Five years on from Dieselgate, laboratory tests show that even the latest diesel cars are a serious health hazard. Diesel engine exhaust is carcinogenic and a major source of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a toxic chemical cocktail that includes nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 can inflame airways and aggravate existing heart and lung conditions.

The UK’s critical network of Clean Air Zones is in jeopardy. So, it is clear we cannot rely on local action to clean our cities’ illegal air quality, primarily caused by diesel vehicles. It is more important than ever that the Government gives us the certainty that diesel has had its day. This means ending sales of diesel cars this decade – by 2030 – five years ahead of the proposed target.

New analysis shows pollution from diesel cars is not just a niche city-centre issue. Levels of harmful NOx air pollution from diesel cars in London are 23 per cent higher in neighbourhoods outside the city’s groundbreaking Ultra Low Emission Zone.

Based on data from 231 locations across the capital, the analysis identifies troubling hotspots for NOx pollution from diesel cars. The most polluted out-of-town spots range from Southall, a densely populated neighbourhood with a local high-street vibe, to gentrified Putney High Street and residential areas close to a busy arterial road in Wembley, Brent.

Wembley especially raises alarm bells as many of its inhabitants suffer from poor respiratory health. The proportion of young people aged 10 to 18 requiring emergency admission for asthma is over 57 per cent higher in Brent than across England as a whole.

London and other cities already routinely exceed World Health Organization air quality limits, and it is possible that the nation’s recovery from the Covid pandemic could push levels of toxic air pollution even higher. Some people are now working from home rather than in city centres, and may be forced to use their cars more to overcome limited public transport services. Others may choose to avoid public transport altogether while the virus is still prevalent.

The past decade has seen the number of diesel cars registered in the capital double to 750,000; across Britain as a whole, there are roughly four times more diesels on the roads today than there were 20 years ago. This was, of course, in response to national policy at the time, which promoted diesel over petrol vehicles to lower CO2 emissions. Despite shortcomings, this shows how powerful Government policy can be, and it can do it again now to protect our health and climate.

We can’t ditch diesel overnight, but surely a decade is ample time for industry to adapt and deliver the change we need? For consumers, this would only be the date from which new diesel purchases can no longer be made; existing vehicles would still be permitted to run.

Setting a date of 2030 is reasonable. It allows for vehicle manufacturers to change their production lines, and for car owners to embrace electric vehicles and switch from re-fuelling to re-charging. A quicker pace is especially needed in London, given there are still only 32,000 electric cars out of a total of 2.6 million.

But the transition must be equitable. Ensuring no one is disadvantaged calls for a range of measures, such as supporting car clubs and scrappage schemes, and subsidising charging points in areas failed by the private sector.

And it’s not just car drivers who need support. Diesel van owners, increasing on our streets, will need assistance, as few electric models are currently available. Promoting a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic provides one way to smooth our path away from this polluting fuel.

Of course, to build healthy cities, all this needs to coincide with investment to encourage more cycling and to increase public transport connectivity. After all that’s gone before, strong policies delivering citywide cuts in harmful levels of diesel air pollution will be a breath of fresh air for everyone.

To investigate causes of air pollution near you, including different road transport types, explore Breathe London’s new tool.

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash