Baroness Randerson: Diesel cars are hurting our children – it's time to put our foot on the electric motor
Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson writes that "We must phase out diesel buses and private hire vehicles in urban areas within five years".
Almost two decades ago, the Labour Government encouraged the switch from petrol to diesel vehicles. The aim was to combat climate change. It backfired spectacularly.
In 2001, they reformed road tax so that cars were charged according to how much they were worth and how much CO2 they emitted. Diesel cars are more fuel-efficient so emit less CO2, which made these cars cheaper to run.
There was one problem. Diesel cars emit far more nitrogen oxides and particulates: bad for the climate, and catastrophic for air quality and the health of our children.
Ministers and their officials knew this at the time. Freedom of Information requests obtained by the BBC last year revealed that New Labour rejected a substantially higher tax on diesel cars “so we are not seen as being overly harsh on diesel users.” So they added just a small 3% surcharge on the road tax of a diesel car.
Their decision – and similar decisions made by other European countries – led to a boom in the sale of diesel cars. At the end of last year, 12.4 million cars licensed in the UK had diesel engines: 40% of the total. In 1997, only 11% of UK cars were diesel.
The consequences have been catastrophic. Road transport creates 80% of the nitrogen oxide pollution at the roadside. Air pollution overall is responsible for 40,000 early deaths in the UK every year, including respiratory difficulties, heart disease and lung cancer. The cost of this to our economy and society could be as much as £20 billion a year.
And it is the most vulnerable, particularly our children, who lose out. Children are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood if they live in a highly polluted area. It also makes them more prone to asthma and high blood pressure.
Yesterday, in the House of Lords, I asked Ministers what more can be done to warn the public about the harm that diesel vehicles cause to people’s health.
We need the Government to tackle roadside air pollution urgently. So far, its response has been weak, patchy, slow and unambitious. It’s set itself a deadline of 2040 to end the production of diesel and petrol cars, but this deadline is years too late. Brexit adds uncertainty because the EU sets engine emission standards, which a future government may decide to erode.
Liberal Democrats demand better than this. This is why we have developed a 15-point plan comprehensive and ambitious enough to clean up road transport emissions.
To protect our children, we would create new ultra-low emissions zones in our cities, ban cars from idling near schools and ensure that pollution levels around our schools are regularly tested and displayed. We’d give citizens a legal right to clean air and invest heavily in health campaigns.
We will make road tax fit for purpose where Labour and the Conservatives have failed. Unlike now, road tax should be based each and every year on how much your car pollutes. Unlike under Blair, we’ll make sure it accounts for nitrogen oxide emissions too.
We would take polluting cars off our roads, banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and small vans by 2025. To help people switch, a diesel scrappage scheme should be brought in for the most polluting vehicles. The Government should lead the way, replacing its vehicle fleet with electric and ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2022.
But we also need to increase take-up of ultra-low emissions vehicles. The Government has powers to create universal charging plugs and to put rapid charging points in motorway service stations. But they need to be more ambitious. Electric cars need time to charge, so we should be investing in charging points where people park cars, such as workplaces and town centres.
Our buses and taxis also have a role to play. We must phase out diesel buses and private hire vehicles in urban areas within five years, offering Government funding to retrofit or replace buses where necessary. And, of course, we should encourage more people to get on the bus, train, tram or bike, forgoing the car wherever possible.
These steps are ambitious but only action of this scale that can begin to tackle the air pollution crisis and stem climate change. The health of our children depends on it.
Baroness Randerson is the Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson