http://www.thetimes.co.uk, August 28 2016, 12:01am
When, a decade and a half ago, the then Labour government introduced tax incentives for motorists to switch to diesel cars, it seemed a win-win for all concerned. Drivers would benefit from the fact that diesel vehicles, while traditionally thought of as dirty and polluting, delivered far better fuel consumption figures than their petrol counterparts.
The government would find it easier to meet greenhouse gas targets — CO2 emissions from diesel cars being lower. The motor industry, for its part, would work with the regulators to ensure diesel vehicles shed their dirty and polluting image, with tough new controls on the deadly particulates and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) produced by these engines.
Diesel, traditionally the preserve of tractors, vans and lorries, became fashionable. The shift to diesel has been dramatic. Since 2000 annual diesel usage in Britain has risen from 15.3m to 22.7m tons, while petrol consumption has fallen from 21.1m to 12.3m tons.
Few policies can be said to have achieved their ambition more completely. Unfortunately, as we know now, that ambition was dangerously misguided.
The switch to diesel ranks as one of the greatest public policy disasters and one of the biggest risks to public health of modern times.
That we know this owes much to the efforts of this newspaper, which will shortly be presented with a major award by the European Lung Foundation. The Sunday Times led the way by revealing that the shift to diesel was made against the advice of scientific experts and that, even before the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the vehicle testing regime was inadequate for the purposes for which it was intended.
Diesel vehicles that passed apparently tough tests and were Euro 6- compliant were found by us to be emitting far higher levels of deadly pollutants — often several times the permitted levels — when driven under real-world conditions. These pollutants are officially estimated to be responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in Britain each year.
As we report today, they result in inflamed and blocked airways, a symptom of which is snoring. They are not what motorists thought they were buying into when they went along with the shift to diesel. Reversing the damaging consequences of this disastrous policy could take decades.
There is a lesson here, as there is with microbeads, Cosmetic microbeads, tiny plastic polymers, are contained in a variety of products including shower gels, facial scrubs and toothpaste.
Most people are blissfully unaware that their everyday cleansing activities result in huge quantities of these particles ending up in the world’s oceans. On one estimate, a single shower results in 100,000 microbeads finding their way into the marine food chain.
The Commons environmental audit committee, which last week called on the government to impose a ban on microbeads, found that the cosmetics industry was decidedly slippery with a “reluctance to talk publicly about the issue” and “a lack of consistency in their approach”. Expecting the industry to adopt and stick by a voluntary code to phase out microbeads would appear to be a triumph of hope over experience. What should we take from all this?
When given the facts, whether about diesel pollution or microbeads, the public will force action on politicians. Microbeads have been banned in America, Canada and Holland and a ban in Britain cannot be far behind.
Many owners of diesel cars are experiencing buyer’s remorse and will switch to petrol. This newspaper will continue to dig and probe to ensure consumers have the facts they need to make informed decisions when some corporations would prefer to pull the wool over their eyes.
For governments, there is a wider lesson. In environmental policy it should be possible to chew gum and walk at the same time.
Reducing CO2 emissions should not have meant encouraging a mass shift to polluting diesel, any more than it should mean accepting all new nuclear or green energy, however expensive.
Protecting the planet requires a joined-up approach, one that informed consumers can support.