The impact of diesel vehicles on London’s air quality will come under the spotlight this week with the publication of two studies pressing the government to curb pollution and the use of such engines.
The London Assembly’s environment committee will on Tuesday blame the “failure” of EU engine standards and government policy that encouraged the take-up of diesel cars for leaving “a generation of dirty vehicles on our roads”.
“Where it was once a deadly mixture of soot and smoke from coal-fired power stations and factories that was largely responsible for London’s air pollution, today it is the combustion of diesel that is to blame for much of the problem,” said Stephen Knight, a member and former chair of the environment committee.
A separate study on the health impacts of air pollution in London, to be published on Wednesday, will put a figure on the number of premature deaths in the capital linked to nitrogen dioxide.
This report does not specifically mention diesel, according to a person with knowledge of the contents, but the fuel is a significant contributor to N02 levels.
Whereas previous studies have focused on PM2.5, a kind of small particulate matter, this study — carried out by researchers at King’s College London, with funding from the Transport for London authority — concludes that the impact of N02 is at least as great as PM2.5. The number of premature deaths caused by PM2.5 in the whole of the UK is 29,000, according to official figures.
The studies come as the motor industry is gearing up for an extended fight to prevent a wholesale shift away from diesel, which accounts for half of passenger car sales in the UK and is the main fuel source for buses, taxis and commercial vehicles.
The UK’s highest court ruled in April that the government must draw up a plan to tackle the dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is known to cause respiratory problems. The country faces EU fines for failing to meet air quality targets.
In response, Boris Johnson, the London mayor, plans to set up an “ultra-low emission zone” in 2020, which would see the capital’s congestion charge that is payable by all vehicles almost doubled for older diesel engines.
Where it was once a deadly mixture of soot and smoke from coal-fired power stations and factories that was largely responsible for London’s air pollution, today it is the combustion of diesel that is to blame for much of the problem
– Stephen Knight, London Assembly environment committee
The environment committee report, called “Driving away from diesel” and seen by the Financial Times, will recommend that the ultra-low emission zone should be brought forward from 2020 and should be widened beyond the congestion charging area “as soon as is practically possible”. The committee had previously told the mayor that to wait until 2020 to introduce the zone would be inexcusable.
The report also urges the government to take toxic pollutants such as N02 and particulate matter into account under an “urgent” review of the vehicle excise duty on cars. The duty, which was subject to sweeping reforms in last week’s Summer Budget, is currently based only on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars.
The government is being also urged take forward Mr Johnson’s proposal for a “scrappage” trade-in scheme for all but the latest diesel cars.
Buses with older “Euro 5” engines should be retrofitted to meet the latest standards or redeployed away from central London, the report will say.
It will also urge the mayor to consult further with the taxi industry and ensure that sufficient zero-emission taxis will be available from 2018, when new minicab standards are due to come into force, as well as the necessary electric vehicle charging infrastructure.