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.

Smog on the Seine

Well that lasted ages, didn’t it? On Sunday 16th March, it was reported in the Guardian that half Parisian motorists would be banned from driving their cars into the city because of the smog caused by high PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns in size) levels and the prevailing weather conditions which had beset Paris over the last few days.

Traffic leaves Paris fuming (Picture source - telegraph.co.uk)

The environmental impacts of traffic – and of its amelioration – leaves Paris fuming (Picture source – telegraph.co.uk)

Air pollution from transport is a real issue, and Parisian authorities have pondered banning vehicles before – this time, though, they meant it.

Not all motorists would be banned – drivers of electric vehicles, for example, were still allowed to use their cars but internal combustion-engined cars would be permitted depending on whether their number plates were odd or even.

Free public transport and Vélib – the Parisian bike hire service – use was provided over the weekend, at some expense to the transport authorities, to dissuade people from using their cars and ameliorate the pervading air quality. You never know, perhaps one outcome of this measure is that more people may make use of these modes of transport in the future.

Anyway, on Monday 17th, less than 24 hours later, the Guardian was reporting that the ban was to be lifted because air quality levels – along with the weather forecast – had improved. The exercise had been a success.

Had it really been that successful? Both the article and the perceived wisdom from reader comments suggested that Parisians would routinely flout the ban, with some quoted in the article that a €22 fine was worth paying – indeed over 3,500 drivers were penalised. Had conditions really improved that quickly, or was this a response to public reaction?

It seems one thing that the ban had achieved, if only for one day, was reduced congestion. As for air quality – well, if it had improved sufficiently then, if nothing else, the one-day ban has provided a graphic illustration of the nature of traffic pollution and of the difference a transport modal switch can make towards the health of our cities. Of course, it may also be that weather conditions are better placed to disperse excess air pollution, allowing the turning a blind eye to traffic pollution. Again.

After all, it was reported that even those who had complained about traffic pollution were still prepared to use their cars, citing their essentiality. What does this say about our mobility demands and expectations, our mobility rights?

In my last blog post, I pondered the ethics of a similar, longer term, banning of older petrol and newer diesel vehicles from London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), however necessary it may be, noting that if we are to promote a truly sustainable low carbon automobility, a draconian disenfranchising of ordinary motorists is not the best way to go about it. In a consumer society, it seems meeting the environmental imperative is a PR exercise in itself. We need to bring motorists with us.

The car is ingrained into our way of life; it has utterly shaped our landscapes. However, perpetual prevarication over air quality and emission measures may well have left us with no alternative but to apply such stark automotive sanctions. The environmental imperative isn’t going to go away, and we have to consider what price we put on our respiratory health; are we really prepared put our cars and our mobility before our ability to breathe?

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.

Something in the air

In a recent report, air pollution has been recognised as one of the top 10 global disease risk factors. Can low carbon vehicles make a difference?

A report published recently in The Lancet medical journal and highlighted here by the Green Car Reports website has investigated ‘the global burden of disease’ between 1990-2010 and listed blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use as the three leading risks to global health in 2010. But the article’s abstract also refers to ‘changes in the magnitude of … ambient particulate matter pollution’. As increasingly affluent populations aspire to the motor car, such pollution will surely increase as global automobility, led by China and India, also increases.

We’ve all seen pictures of the Los Angeles haze and the Beijing smog. From my own experience of walking down Oxford Road in Manchester, reportedly Europe’s busiest bus route, the localised air pollution from the petrol and/or diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) is almost tangible. We drink in an airborne cocktail of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), ozone (O3), hydrocarbons (HC) and  particulate matter of various sizes (PM10 and PM2.5) along every busy road we walk down. I have to say that I’ve tasted nicer cocktails.

Thanks to improved emission technologies and EU bureaucrats beating car manufacturers with their legislative sticks, cars sold in Europe are much cleaner than they once were and, as a result, air pollution from the internal combustion engine has greatly reduced, and will continue to do so. Yet we should remember that this is perhaps tantamount to ‘running to stand still’, as localised air pollution will continue to be a problem as car numbers increase.

The electric vehicle (EV), promoted ostensibly as low carbon transport, provides an answer to this issue. Admittedly, the environmental credentials of EVs are called into question given a largely fossil-fuelled mode of electricity generation and, with a blinkered government seemingly intent on pursuing fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy sources, it is true to say that the UK’s current energy mix means that equivalent CO2 emission figures of EVs – while still lower than those of ICEs – may not be quite as hoped.

But in focussing on carbon reduction, we may overlook the fact that EVs not only lack tailpipe CO2 emissions – they also lack tailpipe emissions of CO, SO2, NOX, O3, HC and PM; any tailpipe emissions, in fact. While accused by some of merely transferring carbon emissions, EVs could actually play a real part in reducing more localised, urban air pollution.

But the fact that the car is more than mere transport means that there’s more to reducing local emissions than simply changing technologies.

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

For example, in an earlier post, Défense de fumer, I mused upon my cultural unease about the potential exclusion of les voitures iconique from the streets of Paris on account of their age related emissions, and wondered if EVs like the AutoLib Bollore BlueCar or Renault Twizy might become new Parisian automotive icons. Cars don’t just carry people; indeed it is precisely because they carry people that they inevitably carry experiences and meanings. My early research suggests that EVs provide a different experience of, and meaning to, how we present and perform – or affect – individual automobilities and I wonder about the degree to which we are culturally ready to change ‘how’ we go from here. Can we change? Do we even want to?

EVs may not be the answer to the environmental impact of the car; they are instead an answer. Costs, practicalities and even desirability would appear to demand a suite of technologies to ameliorate our automotive environmental impacts, and the electric car is perhaps the most immediate answer to the provision of a low carbon automobility. Even if we are absolutely wedded to the notion of personal mobility and to our beloved cars, a wider adoption of EVs in an urban environment would at least mean that we can all start to breathe easier.