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Are Diesel Cars About to Be Banned in Britain?

Diesel cars have had a mixed history. Decades ago, people bought diesels for three reasons. They were simpler and cheaper to service than the equivalent petrol car and they did more miles per gallon than a petrol car. Diesel fuel was also cheaper than petrol, which meant that running a diesel car was even less expensive than a petrol one.

This made the diesel car a good choice for high-mileage drivers such as company reps, and it is no accident either that mini cabs always tended to be diesels. But even in motoring there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there was always a trade-off. That trade-off was that diesels tended to be less sophisticated that petrol cars, with noisy engines and smokier exhausts (we will come back to those exhausts in a minute).

Over time, however, the clever car engineers made diesel cars more and more refined, to the point today where they are barely distinguishable in operation from a petrol car. And it seemed that there was at last something of a motoring free lunch. As it happens, diesel cars emit less CO2 than the equivalent petrol car, so when the government reduced road tax for cars with lower emissions, even more UK drivers cashed in by buying diesels. The effect was quite dramatic, and the number of diesel cars in the UK went from around 1.6 million in 2005 to around 11 million today.

Sadly, there was a bit of a fly in the ointment when it comes to the environmental performance of diesel cars. It is true that because diesel cars are around 20% more efficient than petrol cars they produce less CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, however, as the government concentrated solely on CO2, they forgot about nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particles (soot). And the performance of diesel cars is a lot less impressive when we look at these pollutants, as they emit ten times the amount of fine particles into the air than petrol cars and around twice the amount of nitrogen dioxide. This is bad, because those pollutants are thought to kill around 7,000 people in the UK every year.

And there are legal problems, too. In late April, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the UK had failed to meet its legal obligations to adhere to the EU Air Quality Directive, which stated that nitrogen dioxide levels should be no more than 40 micrograms per metre cubed by 2010. At the moment, 38 out of 43 UK zones do not meet these 'safe' levels. The Supreme Court has therefore ordered the government to submit new plans by the end of 2015 setting out how the country can take urgent steps to meet these legal objectives. Motoring groups now fear that diesel cars and vans could be targeted by these new plans, as they emit most of the NO2 in the air.

AA president Edmund King has responded by saying that 11 million motorists in the UK have been misled into buying diesel cars, and they would now feel betrayed. He called for the government not to succumb to 'knee-jerk' measures against diesel cars and urged the government to look closely at the science behind the emissions. Other car industry spokesmen have made similar noises, but the situation does look serious for the diesel. Ministers have acknowledged that, after the Supreme Court judgement, and with similar legal action in EU courts that could result in Britain being fined hundreds of millions of pounds, they must now move quickly to improve air quality. Tackling commercial vehicles could prove difficult, as there could be a huge knock-on effect on prices as distribution vehicles have to be replaced. Private diesel cars could therefore prove to be an easier target, and with 11 million of them on the road it would be a big target, too. It is unclear how such measures may be introduced, but a scrappage scheme may not be out of the question.

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