How cheap fuel is choking our cities
Diesel’s popularity with motorists has surged, but its green image was an illusion. Now concern is growing over the damage caused by emissions, with children particularly vulnerable
Stand at a busy road junction on a bright day and chances are you will see it: a Wacky Races cloud of black smoke left hanging in the air after a car pulls away. These clouds are actually particles of soot – partially burnt fuel from diesel engines – and they are arguably the worst environmental menace facing city-living Britons – and children in particular.
Diesel vehicles have enjoyed a surge in popularity on our roads, rising from less than a quarter to more than half of all cars sold in the last five years. In the recent past, they were even touted as more environmentally friendly than petrol vehicles, because they burn less fuel and so can produce, overall, less CO2. This green image, however, was always an illusion: diesel engines burn fuel less cleanly than petrol-driven models, resulting in a large excess of particulates – the visible clumps of soot left behind in the exhaust fumes.
Particulates are one of the worst offenders in air pollution because they damage the lungs when inhaled. “It has been known for a long time that diesel particles are harmful, and the links to lung cancer have been widely published,” says Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation. “Along with other major factors such as poor diet and smoking, diesel levels in a large city like London have been associated with significant health problems.” For children, especially, this can cause a permanent stunting of lung growth. And the picture may be even worse than current studies show: “There is a growing consensus in the medical community that diesel particulate emissions are more dangerous to health, particularly lung health, than previously thought,” adds Woods.
Yet despite our growing knowledge of the problem, the coalition’s policies – which follow on from equally harmful policies under the previous government – still favour diesel over petrol, and motorists continue to respond by opting for diesel in the showroom and at the pump. Diesel is taxed at exactly the same rate as petrol, a situation that the Treasury argues is fair and shows no favouritism between the fuels. The problem with this argument is that diesel cars travel further on a gallon of fuel than their petrol-driven counterparts, so the tax per mile is much lower.
The answer, according to a growing number of experts, is to tax diesel more heavily and regulate its use more strictly. The British Lung Foundation would firmly support such measures, says Woods. Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, also supports higher taxes, as does the environmental group Client Earth, and the RAC Foundation, while Friends of the Earth wants a fuel-tax review and Greenpeace says higher taxes in urban areas may be the best approach.
Source: TheGuardian Read more