Barry Gardiner: Coming clean on diesel

Posted On: 
6th April 2017

Barry Gardiner admits that Labour got it wrong on diesel, but the shadow climate change minister says championing electric cars and a rewriting the Clean Air Act can atone for past environmental mistakes

Once we have left the European Union, who will keep government’s feet to the fire?
PA Images

Perhaps the stupidest rule in politics is the one that says “Never admit you made a mistake”. I understand all the reasons the spin doctors give … and they are all wrong! Because the public are not stupid.

So when I was interviewed as the shadow environment minister on Channel 4’s Dispatches two years ago about the 2001 Labour government’s policy of shifting people from petrol to diesel cars, I held up my hands and admitted that the decision we had taken was the wrong one.

My boss at the time was furious. She thought I was stupid for giving such a hostage to the opposition. I, however, was persuaded that the only thing worse than making a mistake that doctors told us was now resulting in the early death of more than 29,000 people a year, was to pretend that you were right all along and refuse to learn from it. Somehow I did not think the British public would respect that.

I did make it clear that the 2001 government was not evil, reckless or stupid. It had not intended to damage people’s health and make air pollution worse. In fact it had taken the decision for the best of motives: to try to reduce the CO2 emissions from petrol vehicles that were contributing to the problem of climate change.

Moreover it had been persuaded by motor manufacturers that there was a new generation of “clean diesel engines” that would usher in a new cheaper, cleaner, greener fuel that would help save the planet. So it was that tax breaks were introduced and incentives given to persuade people to switch to diesel.

Over the next five or six years it gradually became clear that the manufacturers’ hype had been overstated and that we had a burgeoning air pollution problem. At this point, two important things happened. The government asked the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) to report on the nature and scale of the diesel issue and, in 2008, the European Union passed the air quality directive. This required member states to monitor and assess air quality against a set of targets and limit values for lead, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Countries had to report publicly on how they were meeting these targets and, most important of all, to prepare and implement air quality plans to achieve them.

The COMEAP report quantifying the premature deaths from the most damaging particulate matter, PM2.5, was published in 2010. This was also the deadline for achieving the limit values but, because our government, along with others, was failing to tackle the problem, they sought extensions from the commission which pushed particulate matter to 2011 and a final deadline for NO2 to 1 January 2015. The tragedy was that these extensions failed to produce the necessary actions and this prompted Client Earth, the environmental law organisation, to take the government to court. Ultimately the supreme court held that the government was in breach of the law.

Last year, the court found that Defra had modelled its plan of action not around the earliest possible date to solve the problem as they were obliged to, but around the date when the government thought it might be fined by the EU for failing to achieve the limit values. Socrates himself might have been surprised at such a triumph of cynicism.

The courts have now demanded that the government set out new proposals to eliminate air pollution with specific reference to NO2 and particulate matter, and four separate committees of parliament are carrying out concurrent investigations into the problem.

The critical question they must answer is what happens when the threat of an EU fine is no longer there? Once we have left the European Union, who will keep government’s feet to the fire?

The government has a choice and they should choose to approach this as an opportunity to consider what our air pollution regulations are for. Once we have transferred EU air pollution law into British law in the so-called great repeal bill, we need to start thinking about what we want from a new Clean Air Act.

One thing is clear; our approach to European air quality law has helped no one. After a decade of heel-dragging on air quality standards our vehicle fleet is dangerously exposed to diesel and tens of thousands of people continue to die from polluted air.

We should be honest that European vehicle emissions standards are inadequate. We should also bear in mind that this government played a key role in undermining them in the European commission. The current regulations have incentivised little more than marginal improvements in petrol and diesel efficiency and their short timescales create costly uncertainties. The trouble is that government persists in regarding clean air as a burden on business instead of an opportunity to be at the forefront of new low-carbon technologies which would bring economic benefits and jobs in our car industry. This should be an integral part of the government’s industrial strategy.

Leadership in electric vehicles should be at the forefront of the industrial strategy. Norway has already banned the sale of any new car that is not zero emissions from 2025. The UK’s major car export markets – the EU27, China and India – all have a problem with air pollution and all are expected to experience exponential growth in their electric car markets over the next decade.

If our car industry is to play a role in maintaining the UK’s status as a great trading nation it will need to be producing market-leading electric cars here very soon. Yet Jaguar Land Rover’s first fully-electric production car won’t be built here; it will be built by the outsourcing firm Magna in Austria.

The next step is to deliver on a manifesto promise: clean air zones. By adopting the mayor of London’s plan for a scrappage scheme targeted at clean air zones in all our major cities we could go further than any other European nation on air quality. We could get air pollution down to safe levels set by the World Health Organisation.

None of this is free, but the alternative is a future that no government should accept: filthy air and a questionable future for one of our most important manufacturing industries. There has never been a good reason for our failure on air pollution. Today there is no excuse.

Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and shadow minister for climate change