By Ed McCue on 19.03.18

Staggered demand for diesel vehicles dragged down new car sales in February, marking the 11th consecutive month of declines for Britain’s new car market. This is a consequence of the uncertainty over the future of diesel cars in the UK, following a series of new tax laws over the fuel. The overall new car market dropped by 2.8 percent year-on-year, but diesel registrations plunged by a massive 23.7 percent. Only a third of news cars sold in the UK are now diesel.


Demand for second hand diesel cars has also taken a nose-dive following the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015. An analysis by the Guardian estimates that the VW scandal caused nearly 1m tonnes of extra pollution to be emitted. Diesel emissions have come under scrutiny ever since. This, combined with stricter new bans, regulations and tax impositions placed on diesel cars has seen drivers steer away from them altogether.


In many UK cities, nitrogen oxides regularly breach safe levels, and diesel vehicles produce most of these nitrogen oxide gases. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emitted by diesel engines can cause a variety of health and environmental problems, such as an increased risk of respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart disease. UK air pollution is linked to 40,000 early deaths a year alone. The risk of an increase in ground level ozone (smog), acid rain, and water quality deterioration can also occur.


Friends of the Earth Campaigner Aaron Kiely said that “even the newest diesel models are dangerously polluting and simply cannot be part of the solution to the UK’s air pollution crisis. We need to see the UK government taking similar steps to address the quality of UK air, including a scrappage scheme to help more people move away from polluting diesel vehicles. Diesel vehicles simply cannot be part of the picture if we seriously want to clean up the UK’s illegally polluted air.” Other solutions come in the form of how we manage traffic, congestion and parking


Diesels days are numbered. Rome has become the most recent European city to ban diesel vehicles from their roads (by 2024) in a bid to combat air pollution. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have also previously stated that diesel cars would be banned by 2025.


A proposal to ban diesel cars in German cities has also recently been approved. Last year, 70 cities in Germany exceeded EU limits for nitrogen dioxide. Cities such as Stuttgart and Duesseldorf could soon legally ban older, more polluting diesel cars from zones most affected by pollution. The bold decision to do so could have a knock-on effect across Europe, and see other countries impose bans of their own.


Restricting the use of diesel cars is only part of the solution. Electric or hybrid vehicles accounted for more than half of all new cars sold in Norway in 2017. The country is the undisputed wold leader on electric cars, that runs almost solely of the nation’s hydropower resource. Nearly a third of all new cars sold in the country are fully electric or hybrid models, compared to just 2 percent in the UK.


Government backing in Norway has allowed owners of plug-in models to benefit from a variety of perks. Buyers do not pay import tax, VAT, road tolls, ferry fees and city emission charges that other Norwegians face. Moreover, they can park for free and bypass traffic by driving in some bus lanes. The running costs are also lower because electricity is cheaper than petrol or diesel. The financial incentives like that of Norway should be put in place in Britain of we want to meet our clean air and climate change targets.


Furthermore, Toyota, the world largest car manufacturer, has recently pledged to stop the sales of diesel cars in all European markets by the end of this year. Other manufacturers have also followed suit – Fiat Chrysler, which owns Jeep, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, has confirmed it will cease production of diesel vehicles in 2022. Last month, Porsche stopped production of its entire diesel fleet.


Under the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 was announced in a bid to achieve cleaner air. To help facilitate a green revolution in transport, the government has also pledged to have invested a total of £1.5bn in ultra-low emission vehicles by 2021.


In Manchester car commuters could soon face a new pollution tax to meet EU limits. The UK is currently in breach of legal limits for pollutants, after the European Commission issued the UK with a “final warning” over its failure to address harmful levels of toxic air.


Manchester town hall bosses are to consider proposals for a workplace parking levy to help reduce air pollution in the city, in response to EU laws, but it has come under criticism after claims that taxing companies that provide car parking spaces for employees would damage the city’s economy.


However, a similar scheme was introduced in Nottingham in 2012, where businesses were charged £400 a year if they provide more than ten parking spaces for their workers. It is claimed that this scheme improved air quality and funded improvements in public transport.


Britain’s carbon dioxide levels have however sunk to the level last seen in 1890. In 2017, CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels fell by 2.6 percent. This was mainly driven by a 19 percent decline in coal use. The analysis, based on government energy use figures, shows that this year’s total CO₂ emissions are currently 38 percent below 1990 levels.


The trend of worsening emissions from vehicles however stalls this progress. Vehicles are creating a real hassle for the government, with average emissions for new cars rising for the first time since 2000.


This could be an unintended consequence of the ‘anti-diesel’ campaign pronounced through government rhetoric in recent years – have people have just switched to a carbon dioxide emitting, petrol alternative? Generally speaking, a diesel engine will produce more nitrogen oxides (a major urban pollutant) than carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) compared to a petrol engine, and vice versa, but petrol engines are considered less polluting. Moves to combat one environmental problem may therefore threaten any attempts to combat another.


Paul Morozzo from Greenpeace said “(Growing) SUV sales have had more of an impact on average CO₂ emissions than the shift away from diesel”, almost offsetting and potential progress made by a diesel ban. The solution is for consumers to eventually switch to electric and hybrid vehicles, progressing to a more sustainable social norm and embracing a major cultural shift in the market – like what we are already beginning to see in Norway


Whilst diesels decline is gathering momentum, the burden mustn’t simply shift onto petrol alternatives. The rate of decline of carbon dioxide levels in the UK is positive, but if the UK is to meet its climate targets over the next few decades, this rate needs to be accelerated and not simply maintained. One area that should be targeted is the cars and vehicle industry.