By Jonathan Owen & Jamie Merrill – The Independent on Sunday
The drive by the previous government to encourage millions of people to opt for diesel cars in a bid to lower carbon emissions has created a ‘massive problem for public health’ the shadow environment minister, has admitted.
Ten million Britons drive diesel cars, in a trend which was encouraged by tax breaks given by George Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Last year more than half of all new cars were diesel. But while they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) than their petrol counterparts, diesel cars emit more deadly pollutants – which have contributed to dangerous levels of air pollution causing the deaths of 29,000 people a year.
Compared to petrol cars, diesels produce 22 times the amount of particulate matter – a cause of cancer. And they emit up to four times more nitrogen oxides – including nitrogen dioxides, which damages lungs and blood vessels and can cause heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Barry Gardiner, shadow environment minister, said: “there’s no question that the decision we took was the wrong decision, but, and it’s a big but, at the time we didn’t have evidence that subsequently we did have, and we had cleaner diesel engines, which we thought meant that any potential problem was a lower grade problem than the problem we were trying to solve of CO2.”
Speaking in a Dispatches documentary that will be broadcast on Channel 4 tomorrow, he claims the drive for diesel was the “right move away from those vehicles who were pushing out CO2 emissions.”
Air quality is now so poor that it is stunting the lungs of young children in parts of London, according to preliminary findings of researchers at Queen Mary University Hospital and King’s College, London.
The documentary also reveals how car drivers are exposed to higher levels of pollutants than cyclists and pedestrians. Professor Frank Kelly, Chair of of the Committee for the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, said that diesel fumes could “penetrate” car cabins with “ease”. Alan Andrews, a lawyer with environmental campaign group Client Earth, said: “People still think diesel is the green fuel… The truth is diesel is a very heavily pollutant fuel.”
In London, councils are pushing back against diesel engines, with plans in Islington and Hackney for surcharges of up to £96 on parking permits for diesel vehicles.
The car industry has reacted with dismay to the “blanket” clampdown, with one source close to Ford, which just opened a £190m diesel engine plant at Dagenham, saying it was an unfair “demonisation of diesel”.
A government spokesperson said it had invested £2bn since 2010 on “ultra-low-emission vehicles, sustainable travel and green transport schemes”.