Dark clouds are gathering for diesel drivers. Media attention over NOx and particulate emissions plus recent EU rulings on UK air quality have brought the damaging effects of diesel into the mainstream. And there’s a very real possibility that Westminster will use the current tide of anti-diesel sentiment as a reason to hike duty. Trouble is, over 50% of all the cars registered in the UK run on diesel and any tax increase on derv-powered cars and vans will cost consumers hundreds of millions. Not to mention the increase in costs to hauliers who rely on diesel more than anybody.
Diesel particulates – that’s the tiny black particles you see coming from tail pipes on acceleration – are a public health issue and the cause of asthma and thousands of premature deaths across Europe. In fact we don’t know how damaging PM10s are to our respiratory systems because not enough research has been done. Something clearly has to change but instead of taking the easy option and blaming the car industry we need to understand why this has happened in the first place.
Back in 2001, Gordon Brown lowered the tax on lower sulphur diesel because the thinking then was that increasing diesel use would help lower CO2 emissions and reduce global warming. Remember how back then CO2 and climate change was seen as a huge threat to the world? Well, that policy change made millions of drivers switch to diesel and pushed the prevalence of diesel cars and vans to 50% of the entire UK car park. Carmakers in the UK simply reacted to demand and started selling more diesel cars than petrol. Labour’s fuel duty escalators continually pushed up the price of fuel so drivers became even more attracted to diesel because of its higher MPG figures. And those policy changes from 2001 to 2011 are why diesel cars have become so widely used in this country. You can’t blame the car manufacturers.
Instead of trying to reduce diesel use by higher taxation we need to look at the oldest and most polluting cars, vans, buses and trucks as the biggest cause of particulate pollution and get them off the road. We need a diesel scrappage scheme to remove the oldest and dirtiest diesels from our cities and incentivise consumers and businesses to buy newer cleaner models. Because, and here’s the thing, consumers shouldn’t be blamed for following the government’s advice and changing to diesel. However well intentioned that advice may have been, history has proved it ill-informed, and 17 million car drivers shouldn’t be financially penalised because of that. They simply thought they were doing the right thing.
There’s a real risk here that the UK car industry will be damaged, consumers will be disadvantaged, residual values of diesels will collapse and any increase in diesel fuel duty will reduce growth and GDP. This doomsday scenario could quickly unravel and cost the UK economy several billion. This is an issue that needs to be handled very carefully indeed.