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Who is responsible for the air quality crisis?

7th April 2017

This week, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched detailed plans to tackle the issue of London’s “lethal” air pollution. Starting in October, all drivers with cars registered before 2006 (petrol and diesel) will have to pay an extra £10 ‘T-charge’ in addition to the congestion charge.  On top of this, and following consultation, the Mayor plans to roll out an Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in central London from April 2019, meaning that drivers of diesel cars bought before 2012, and petrol cars before 2006, will be charged £12.50 plus the £11.50 congestion charge. There are plans to expand the ULEZ to the whole of Greater London by 2021 and to include buses, coaches, lorries, vans, minibuses and motorcycles.

This week’s proposals suggest a more punitive direction for efforts to manage air pollution, placing the onus on drivers. Under the ULEZ, from 2019 drivers could in effect be charged £24 a day for driving in central London if they bought their car before 2012. Twelve million people in the UK own a diesel car, and figures released this week by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) suggest half of all cars sold today are diesel, with sales rising 1.6% this month. A diesel scrappage scheme to compensate drivers is on the table; but at an estimated cost of £515 million in London before the ULEZ comes into effect, and £3.5 billion nationwide, many have warned it would be too costly to roll out.

Nationally, the Mayor of London’s ambitious proposals have sparked criticism from several MPs, with many highlighting the injustice of punishing diesel car drivers when many were encouraged by the Government to buy diesel in the last decade. In the 2000s, the Labour Government implemented tax incentives and highlighted the efficiency benefits of diesel over petrol. Diesel was considered a ‘silver bullet’ to meet the Government’s climate change targets, whilst avoiding hostility from drivers. Consumers were advised that opting for diesel was the pro-climate choice, emitting 15 per cent less CO2 per gallon than petrol cars. It “turns out we were wrong”, said former Chief Scientific Advisor Dr David King, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme this week.

Is the air quality crisis a case of the wrong science in decision making? Why did the Government actively encourage diesel ownership in the 2000s when the costs to the environment and human health are so great? This is arguably less an issue of misleading evidence, but rather, one which highlights the complexity of environmental policy making. The previous Labour Government overlooked the health and environmental safety issues of diesel to pursue a climate change agenda. However, air quality is now on the top of the agenda, and the negative effects of diesel can no longer be ignored. The European Commission in February sent the UK a ‘final warning’ for breaches to legislated safe levels for particulates and nitrous oxides. Air pollution is said to be responsible for an estimated 9,000 premature deaths in London alone, and 50,000 across the UK; this has been reported to cost the NHS £27 billion every year.

Politicians and local authorities are now getting serious about air quality. Sadiq Khan’s plans are only the latest in a series of Government and local authority activities to combat air pollution, with the Joint Committee on Air Quality launched last month, and a series of ministerial statements and questions from MPs cross-cutting DEFRA, DfT, BEIS and the Department of Health.

Air pollution is no longer resigned to the realm of ‘boring’ scientists, or something studied for Geography GCSE. It is now a political battleground, and everyone is talking about it.

Grayling Team

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