Dispatching diesel

On 26th January, an episode of Channel 4’s series of ‘Dispatches’ documentaries series claimed we’ve been ‘conned’ into automotively contributing towards local pollution. Is this really the case?

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Traffic, as powered by the internal combustion engine, creates air pollution. It burns, ergo it pollutes, and yet ‘externalities’ such as the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels seemingly go unregarded, or at least uncosted. I’ve blogged about this issue before but, last week, it made main prime-time television.

The premise of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme entitled ‘The Great Car Con’ (available to view until late February) was that the general public was ‘conned’ into buying diesel cars under the premise of their ‘greenness’ and that impending environmental legislation means that those who thought they were doing the right thing may soon be penalised, something I alluded to in a blog post for the Tyndall Centre.

The main justification for diesel’s claimed environmental benefits, and one that was repeated during the programme, was that they do more miles per gallon and, therefore, they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2).

This isn’t strictly true. Diesel contains more carbon than petrol – for example, it was noted in a 2003 paper that there was 2.7kg of embedded carbon in a litre of diesel, compared to 2.4kg in petrol. However, the greater fuel economy of diesel cars does permit lower CO2 per km figures compared to petrol cars, if not a specifically lower CO2 figure per litre, something that wasn’t made clear in the programme.

It may seem pedantic, but would diesel have been thought of as clean or ‘green’ if the specific carbon content of these fuels was initially made clear to the motoring public?

Indeed, the notion or perception of diesel as ‘clean’ is incongruous, as anyone who has stood in the vicinity of a bus as it has pulled away from a bus stop will testify. CO2 aside, all fossil fuels emit a cocktail of pollutants when burned, and their differing combustion characteristics mean that diesel vehicles emit more of such pollutants as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – now more recognised as life-threatening – than do petrol ones, up to 3×NO2, so the programme claimed.

One thing that the programme seemed to illustrate was the efficacy of fiscal levers – in diesel’s case, CO2/km-based VED (or ‘road tax’) bands – in changing consumer patterns; indeed, new diesel car sales recently overtook new petrol car sales.

Manipulation of the EU’s soon-to-be-replaced NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) laboratory test – something noted by European NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) – was also highlighted in the programme, and brought an interesting quote from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), who claimed that car makers ‘can only meet the regulations’.

However, as we now know more about the health and environmental impacts of fossil-fuelled transport, and if the internal combustion engine is to remain with us for some time yet, here’s a radical idea – how about car makers meeting the science? If being seen to be green is important (and, apparently, it is), imagine what a PR coup beating legislation – rather than merely meeting legislation – would be, and not with some of the spurious manufacturers claims noted by T&E.

So were we conned into buying diesels? I think ‘conned’ is a bit strong – perhaps ‘misled’ is nearer the mark, largely because the fact that there’s more to car emissions than CO2 (a key greenhouse gas, don’t forget) was somehow overlooked. However, if ‘meeting regulations’ is really all car makers can do, then perhaps it’s time that governments, whether at national or supranational level, addressed NO2 and PM emissions as they have previously done CO2 emissions – measure it, levy it (at least in the nearer term) until it is sufficiently reduced.

One thing that is clear is that whether as a consequence of petrol’s CO2/km emissions compared to diesel, or of diesel’s NO2 and PM emissions compared to petrol, it seems we can’t have it all ways with the internal combustion engine.

Auto ban?

Measures to curb transport emissions in London – such as the congestion charge – are nothing new. But the latest reported proposals go much further.

Autocar magazine has reported that moves are afoot to extend London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone and sanction the banning of older petrol and diesel cars from the centre of London.

They also note that, although such measures are still subject to consultation, an informal vote late last year to ban pre-Euro6 compliant diesel cars (those registered before 2014!) and pre-Euro4 compliant petrol cars (before 2005) won great support.

In considering such proposals, London would be following other European cities in restricting the movement of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles; Paris, for example, has previously proposed banning vehicles of a certain age, about which I’ve mentioned some cultural unease.

I’ve blogged before about air pollution resulting from our use of the car, and how electric vehicles can play a part in ameliorating this. In a blog for a postgraduate conference competition held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, a climate change research unit, I noted that while plans to lower the CO2 threshold for London Congestion Charge exemption from 100g CO2/km to 75g CO2/km may be justifiable –  even necessary – to achieve the air quality we all deserve, they run the risk of being seen as draconian, potentially disenfranchising motorists who want to do, or thought they were already doing, the right thing by driving lower-carbon ICE cars.

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

In my Tyndall Centre blog, I noted that true societal change comes from the bottom up, and that the social and cultural significance of the car means that an automotive bottom-up impetus need to be fostered if a true low carbon automobility is to be fomented. With this in mind, I felt the reduction from 100g to 75g CO2/km was a huge step, requiring the acquisition of vehicles beyond many motorists reach.

The latest reported proposals, however, at a stroke run the risk of disenfranchising far many more people than might the Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) emission threshold proposals, from classic car enthusiasts to petrolheads to motorists on a budget for whom newer low-carbon, hybrid or electric vehicles are simply not an option (especially in such straitened times as these).

So why consider such drastic action now? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the EU is taking the UK to court over ‘persistent air pollution problems’, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. Exposure to such levels comes mainly from traffic and, in London, are perhaps a corollary of increasing numbers of diesel vehicles being driven in the capital as a means of achieving sub-100g CO2/km mobility so as to avoid the congestion charge; certainly diesel cars account for half of UK new car sales.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lowering emission thresholds is obviously a good thing environmentally. However, in concentrating on CO2 emissions and using them as the basis of a fiscal instrument, other emissions – such as nitrous oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) – have seemingly been forgotten. It may be that the threat of legal action has spurred the powers that be to do something about air quality in the capital and, in the face of possible sanctions, they would appear to have panicked.

But it needn’t have been like this. If the current political administration had taken wider air quality issues more seriously, then ‘persistent’ air quality breaches cited by the EU may have been avoided and draconian measures such as completely banning older cars – therefore compromising the mobility of many less well-off motorists – might not be being considered. At least, not just yet.

The banning of older vehicles may not come to pass. On the other hand, it may have indeed come to this, with the environmental imperative now demanding drastic action. Either way, it seems that an environmental complacency has meant the ethics of low carbon automobility becoming ever more problematic.