Banning diesel cars is essential to tackling London’s pollution crisis

Jimmy Aldridge
Air Pollution Levels In Putney Exceed Yearly Quota Just Days Into 2013
Recent polling suggests that 51 per cent of residents are extremely or very concerned about air pollution and a further 35 per cent fairly concerned (Source: Getty)

Writing in City A.M. on Friday last week, Trevor Raymond from the World Platinum Investment Council argued that the phasing out of diesel cars from London’s roads, as recommended in a recent report we published, was a “blunt policy response to a complex and evolving [air pollution] problem”.

We totally agree. There is no single policy that can, on its own, rid the capital of its lethal and illegal levels of air pollutants. That’s why we made very clear in our report that a phase-out of diesel cars would need to be part of a much broader package of European, national, and local measures that tackle the various drivers of the problem.

And what a problem it is. Air pollution causes the equivalent of 9,400 premature deaths in the capital each year – a public health issue second only to smoking. A quarter of the city’s schoolchildren are currently exposed to levels of air pollution that breach legal and health limits set in UK law. This is clearly unacceptable and most Londoners agree. Recent polling suggests that 51 per cent of residents are extremely or very concerned about air pollution and a further 35 per cent fairly concerned.

So action needs to be taken, but it will inevitably involve some difficult trade-offs. To ensure that the impact on Londoners’ everyday lives is minimised, policies must be carefully focused on the root of the problem. Currently this is road transport, which is by far the largest contributor to air pollution in London. And the principal culprits are diesel vehicles – the average diesel car in London emits more than five times as much nitrogen oxide and 80 times more nitrogen dioxide (the air pollutant with the most harmful health impacts) than the average petrol car.

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The number of diesel vehicles on the road has sharply increased since the mid-2000s after the government introduced a number of financial incentives. Those incentives were put in place in an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions in order to tackle climate change – at the time diesel vehicles emitted less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles. However, the CO2 advantage of diesel has now largely disappeared as petrol cars have become more efficient. We are left with millions of vehicles on the road that have minimal climate benefits, and a very significant air pollution problem.

There is good reason for the owners of diesel vehicles to be angry over this confusion in policy, but the fact remains that addressing London’s air pollution must mean getting serious about restricting the use of diesel vehicles.

Some vehicle types are easier to replace than others. There are few alternatives currently available for vans and lorries, for example, but a diesel car can be replaced with a hybrid, electric, petrol, or LPG vehicle. And where alternatives exist that can minimise the impact of policies on Londoners, our view is that they should be prioritised.

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With the help of King’s College, we crunched the numbers on restricting diesel and found that even if London were to return to the lowest recorded level of diesel car ownership in the UK, at 10 per cent of the car fleet (it’s currently 57 per cent), we would still be in breach of legal limits on air pollution.

To truly address air pollution in London means the phasing out of diesel cars. This is the conclusion that has been reached in Paris, in Berlin, in Delhi and many other cities across the world. But we are clear that the phase-out also needs to be part of a package of other measures such as the tightening up of European standards and testing and a reform of UK-wide incentives for diesel vehicles. And in London we recommend that emissions standards be tightened within the city-wide Low Emissions Zone and the ultra-low emissions zone should be extended across the whole of inner London from 2019. Additional action will also need to be taken to clean up the capital’s taxis and buses which are the largest polluters in central London.

We are currently undertaking further work with King’s College to model a package of policies in detail with the goal of getting London in line with legal air pollution limits by 2025. A critical part of that will be measures that help Londoners with the costs of the policies, such as a diesel scrappage scheme that would pay drivers to move over to cleaner, greener alternatives. We will report on the results in the autumn.

For all Londoners, including the World Platinum Investment Council, dealing with air pollution is likely to imply some tough changes. But they are unavoidable if the capital is to catch up with other major cities and become a healthy and attractive place to live.

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