Offering tax breaks for diesel cars probably seemed like an obvious decision to Gordon Brown’s government back in 2001. They produced around 15% less carbon dioxide than their petrol-powered counterparts, and as such were clearly preferable – greenhouse gases were the worry of the day, and the UK had made big promises in Kyoto a few years previously.
I wasn’t at the meeting, and hindsight is 20/20. But from the vantage point of 2017 these choices seem overly simplistic. Maybe their primitive understanding of diesel pollution wasn’t compelling enough to shape the discussion; perhaps pressure from the green lobby made it hard to question the orthodoxy; or maybe the government thought that diesel engines would somehow become cleaner than they did.
Whatever the reason, those decisions made at the start of the millennium turned out to have enormous, deadly consequences. Diesel fumes’ higher levels of NO₂ and deadly particulate matter have poisoned the air in our cities and are killing thousands of people every year – a deadly legacy of a knee-jerk public policy.
But that’s no reason to respond with more faddy, short-sighted legislation. An upcoming diesel scrappage scheme feels like precisely that, another unthinking reaction to a nebulous problem that demands a genuinely intelligent approach.
Diesel fumes are killing thousands of people every year – a deadly legacy of a knee-jerk public policy
Transport is an enormous issue for our crowded island nation, reliant as it is on decrepit Victorian infrastructure and a masochistic 9-5 office culture. For the sake of brevity, we can break our daily travel challenges into three broad categories: local pollution, global environmental damage, and congestion. Crushing your car and buying a new one won’t solve any of these problems.
Let’s start locally. Pollution on, say, Brixton Road, which reached its annual NO₂ limit on January 5, is not the result of Brixton residents driving diesel cars. There’s a bottleneck there, consisting of a mix of lorries, buses, vans and cars. Swapping a fraction of a percent of those vehicles for Nissan Leafs is obviously not a solution.
And that’s before you ask awkward questions about non-exhaust emissions, like the little bits of tyre that flake off all vehicles, or the energy required to charge an electric vehicle. Why are we incentivising people to buy into yet more well-known problems, when we’re clearly incapable of correctly choosing the lesser of two evils?
On a global scale, a scrappage scheme goes from “daft” to “unforgivably wasteful”. Many arguments surrounding this issue force us to weigh up local NOx against global CO₂, but however you look at it, building a new car when you don’t need to is environmentally irresponsible. It’s no surprise that the car-making industry is in favour of a scheme that means they sell more cars, but this has never helped us before.
Especially not in the context of our third key transport problem, congestion. Traffic is caused by too many people using too many vehicles. Swapping one four-wheeled, five-seat machine for another one with a different powertrain will have no effect on the bottlenecks, nor the safety of cyclists, nor the larger diesel vehicles chugging away at the lights.
Ignoring (for now) the obvious insanity of 3m people squeezing into a few square miles of London simultaneously, then all leaving together eight hours later, there are better ways of ensuring mobility around the city than introducing yet more cars. Bicycles are an extremely efficient mode of transport, as are trams, buses, trains, and boats – when they’re used cleverly. But they’re not. We Londoners have a gridlocked bus system, a frail rail network, fifteen catamarans and – inexplicably – a cable car.
It’s no surprise that the car-making industry is in favour of a scheme that means they sell more cars
The network is in desperate need of joined-up thinking. And once we've incentivised people out of their cars and onto public transport, we need to them out of that and onto their feet. Encouraging cycling, walking and (dare I say it) working from home, is the only future we can afford to build.
Diesel scrappage is just the latest fad in a long line of regrettable government initiatives. A scheme that encourages people to crush their perfectly functional car in order for a new one to be built in its place will not be looked upon favourably by history.
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