Quentin Willson column: It’s time to clean up our air

Motoring broadcaster and transport campaigner Quentin Willson highlights the need for more robust Government policy when it comes to cleaning up our air. Read his latest exclusive monthly column for Transport + Energy below.

Maybe I’m an idealist. Or maybe people are much more selfish than I thought. But why does the idea of cleaning up our urban air meet with such resistance? Why does it feel like we’re trying to move the Albert Memorial? This is public health. The air we breathe. The air our children breathe. The elemental life force of oxygen. Why is reducing diesel particulate pollution by increasing the number of electric cars and vans in our cities so anathema to so many? And it’s not as if we don’t know about particulates. There’s been enough stuff in the press in the last five years about the ultrafine particles of soot emitted by diesel engines. These particles are ‘respirable’ – in other words they’re so tiny they can penetrate deep into our lungs and are a Group 1 carcinogen. There’s a haystack of research from all over the world that keeps coming up with the same, consistent conclusions – exposure to diesel particulate matter is bad for human health. We all know this.

And most of us also know that now we have the technology to significantly reduce that health risk by having zero emission electric cars and vans in our cities. That’s right, zero tailpipe emissions. No smoke, no CO2, no NOx, no PMs. The more zero emission vehicles in our cities, the less diesel particulates, less asthma, respiratory diseases, lung cancer and premature deaths. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand the causality of those connections. Replace diesel vehicles in our cities with electric and we all live longer. But there’s a large body of people – alarmingly large – who disregard the public health imperatives and believe that a permission to pollute is somehow a democratic right, like a sort of Second Amendment. And some will even attempt to argue that a previous government gave them that right.

Back in 2001, then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, made a policy blunder that has become a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. By reducing the tax on low sulphur diesel and not penalising diesel drivers with higher VED charges on the grounds that diesel emitted less CO2 than petrol, the number of diesel passenger cars in the UK rose from 10% in 2000 to 40% by 2017. This is now known as the Dash for Diesel. Recent FOI requests to the Treasury have revealed that this policy decision was entirely due to ‘presentational’ issues and crafted so that fuel duty would be seen as fair and equitable to both petrol and diesel drivers even though ministers were advised by the Treasury’s tax policy section of the potential damage to local air quality. Diesel was hailed as environmentally better than petrol, duty was reduced, and company car fleets bought diesel Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Vectras by the boatload. The rest, as they say, is history. But that was 21 years ago, and we can now taste, smell and see the grave error of that policy.

Throw in the Dieselgate scandal, that some diesel passenger cars emitted 40 times the legal limits in official tests along with a report from the Royal College of Physicians claiming that poor air quality is responsible for 40,000 premature deaths, and you’d think that by now driving a diesel would be as socially unacceptable as using a phone at the wheel or drinking and driving. But you’d be wrong. And here’s the thing, if all this irrefutable evidence, thousands of factually and scientifically proved arguments, fail to change so many people’s attitudes then we have some serious work ahead of us. Sales of new diesel cars may be down in 2021, but in the second quarter of this year 62,000 people still bought a brand-new diesel-powered car along with 95,000 diesel vans. The DVLA have nearly 12 million diesel passenger cars registered along with around six million diesel vans (light delivery vans are one of the UK’s fastest growing road transport sectors). 

All of which means that cleaning our urban air will take longer, much longer, than any health-conscious, technologically advanced society should reasonably need. And even when we get to 2030 – the cut-off date for sales of new combustion cars and vans – many of those millions of diesels already on the road could, like a bad smell, hang around for many more years. On the forums the diesel die-hards are already promising to keep their oil burners running for as long as possible beyond 2030. Sadly, for many, public health isn’t the imperative that it should be and a permission to pollute has become a more important personal priority. We can’t wait another 20 years to breathe clean air in our cities. And all those well-intentioned EV drivers won’t make enough of a difference against millions of old, badly maintained legacy diesels. What we need is a government policy on diesel that unravels some of the damage caused by the last government policy on diesel. If you can sense my frustration, then I’m sorry, but we need solutions. What those solutions might look like, needs a pause for thought. Answers on a postcard please. 

Quentin Willson joined the Transport + Energy editorial board earlier this year and writes an exclusive monthly column for the publication.

In his first column which was published in September he outlined his concerns about the amount of information doing the rounds designed to discredit the electric vehicle (EV) in all its forms and what can be done to combat this.

Last month (October) he discussed the energy crisis and examined how electrification provides the answer to get out of it.

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