Diesel fumes are significantly more damaging to health than those from petrol engines, according to research which shows that related air pollution contributes to lung disease, heart attacks, asthma and other respiratory problems.
The findings, published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, are an embarrassment for successive governments, which have encouraged a switch to diesel since 2001 by linking road and company car tax to CO2 emissions. Diesel engines have been billed as “green” by car makers, governments and environmental groups because they are more fuel-efficient and emit less CO2 than petrol. Vehicles with low fuel economy and high CO2 emissions are further penalised by higher fuel duty tax, while diesels with the lowest CO2 emissions are not subject to road tax or congestion charges. Insurance premiums are also affected by cars’ CO2 status. Last year diesel car sales overtook those of petrol-fuelled cars for the first time. Petrol car sales are now 15% lower than in 2011.
The government accepts that air pollution from all sources contributes to about 30,000 deaths a year in Britain. But the research estimates that diesel-related health problems cost the NHS more than 10 times as much as comparable problems caused by petrol fumes. Last year the UN’s World Health Organisation declared that diesel exhaust caused cancer and was comparable in its effects to secondary cigarette smoking.
Anti-pollution groups, already furious that the government has failed to meet EU air pollution legal limits, say no account is being taken of the health damage done by diesel fumes because CO2 emissions are seen as the sole benchmark for environmental responsibility.