Change is in the air for diesel vehicles
Changes to our motor tax system encouraged people to switch to diesel cars. Will it now be used to move them towards clearer machines? By Geraldine Herbert
The British government is to follow the lead of other European countries and introduce a scrappage scheme for diesel cars. British Prime Minister Theresa May has asked officials to develop plans for a scheme as part of proposals to improve air quality. The scheme will encourage motorists to a switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles by offering a financial incentive for drivers of older diesel cars trading them in. Cars or vans that are more than 10 years old are likely to be eligible and owners may be offered up to £2,000 to switch to a cleaner car.
Diesel is increasingly coming under scrutiny for the levels of pollution that it causes and growing concerns over the impact of diesel's NOX emissions on people's health in urban areas, where they have been blamed for chronic breathing problems and related illnesses.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) closely monitors air quality here and according to their latest report, for 2015, Ireland stayed within EU limits for air quality but particulate matter and ozone levels had exceeded the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
In 2012, the WHO's cancer research agency classified diesel engine exhaust fumes as cancer-causing. The European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths a year in Europe, and about half of these are from traffic emissions. In Ireland, four people die per day due to air pollution and yet most deaths linked to poor air quality are preventable.
During the term of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition Government, thousands of drivers were persuaded to buy diesel cars. The aim was to help Ireland to hit EU carbon emissions targets and it was claimed that diesel cars were "greener" because they generated less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles. In 2008 the Coalition changed the VRT and motor tax system from one based on engine capacity to the current one based on CO2 emissions. As a result of this change and improvements in the performance of diesel cars, sales dramatically shifted in favour of diesel and the percentage of new petrol cars fell from 70pc of total sales in 2007 to 32pc by the end of 2009. Given the current health concerns about diesel emissions, the decision to prioritise reduced CO2 by incentivising diesel would seem to have been misguided.
So is it likely that Irish motorists will be offered a scrappage scheme?
Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten (pictured right) has indicated that the Government plans to tackle the issue. In the Draft National Mitigation Plan, published last month, the prospect of new or increased taxes to encourage the take-up of alternative fuels to petrol and diesel was raised.
But is the Minister likely to consider paying drivers to ditch their diesel cars?
Minister Naughten spoke to the Sunday Independent saying his view was that the motor taxation system was the best tool to effect change as had been demonstrated in 2008 and that he was exploring the potential of taxing cars on their actual on-the-road emissions but it will next year before there will be any developments and motorists will not be affected this year. Using the National Car Testing Service, data stored in the car might be used to establish the actual emission levels and the rate of motor tax could be based on this information. For new cars that are not subject to the NCT, the manufacturers' declared emission values would continue to apply.
Would a scrappage scheme to reduce older diesel car numbers in Ireland be a more effective solution?
Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles and air quality manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment, told the Sunday Independent: "Analysis to date shows that, in general, scrappage schemes are ineffective to deal with the diesel pollution problem. While making it easier for already well-off citizens to upgrade their vehicles, they are not enough of an incentive to help the most vulnerable groups to replace their old diesels as those still lack the means to buy new vehicles."
Poliscanova believes the task of dealing with the problem lies at EU level and with the current testing procedure for new cars. All cars that are type-approved for sale in the European Union have to undergo standard tests to determine their fuel consumption, NOX emissions, CO2 emissions etc, but the current test has been in use since the 1970s, was last updated in 1997 and is now completely outdated.
As it is lab-based and no tests are carried out on the road, there is an ever increasing gap between what is happening on the road and the results from ideal laboratory conditions. A new testing procedure is being introduced in September and will mean new cars will have to be tested both in the laboratory and on the road so it is hoped then we will have accurate figures about emissions and fuel consumption.
"Unless there are independent checks on vehicles at EU level to guarantee they meet emission standards on the road, initiatives like scrappage schemes will fail to deliver air quality benefits. Instead, authorities should be putting pressure on car makers to upgrade their vehicles in line with EU laws as well as put in place clean and effective public transport alternatives," says Poliscanova.
Any changes to the cost of diesel, the current motor tax system or the introduction of a scrappage scheme could have a profound effect on the future value of diesel cars in Ireland. In the meantime, it seems we are caught between an immediate health risk due to air pollution and a long-term global climate one due to CO2 emissions.