Thursday 23 May 2019

The demise of diesel but at what cost?

As consumers continue to turn away from  diesel, carbon emissions are set to rise, writes Contributing Editor Geraldine Herbert

Polluters: The Government needs to look at taxation as a means of encouraging motorists to buy electric vehicles and reduce emissions. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Polluters: The Government needs to look at taxation as a means of encouraging motorists to buy electric vehicles and reduce emissions. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Geraldine Herbert

Sales of new diesel cars fell by 20pc in the first three months of the year. However, the declining sales could be to blame for an increase in average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for cars bought in Ireland.

According to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI), the average CO2 emissions from a new car in the first quarter of  this year has increased by 1.5 grams/km, resulting in  an increase of around 2,000 tonnes in annual CO2 for the new cars registered so far this year.  

This unintended consequence can be linked to consumers moving away from diesel to petrol cars, sales of which are up 20pc this year, as they emit significantly higher levels of CO2 than diesel vehicles.  

It’s not so long ago that diesel was the green fuel, promoted and incentivised by governments as a way to save the planet. Under the Kyoto Protocol, first agreed in 1997 but only ratified eight years later, participating countries were legally committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years. 

European governments viewed diesel cars as a fast and effective means to hit their CO2-reduction targets, since diesel cars typically emit, on average, 15-20pc less CO2 than petrol. 

To achieve these targets governments in Europe spent billions boosting diesel by making make it cheaper to buy at the pumps than petrol and taxing new diesel registrations at lower rates than petrol cars. 

Similar measures were introduced here in 2008 and thousands of drivers were persuaded to buy diesel cars by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition, when they changed the VRT and motor tax system from one based on engine capacity to the current one based on CO2 emissions. 

The impact was rapid and sales dramatically shifted in favour of diesel. The percentage of new petrol cars fell from 70pc in 2007 to 32pc  by the end of 2009, proving that Irish car buyers will switch allegiance if there is an opportunity to save money.

Despite the publication of a report by the World Health Organization in 2012 stating that diesel exhaust is a cause of lung cancer due to their higher levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates, the promotion of diesel continued.

Then, in September 2015, the VW diesel scandal erupted when it was revealed that the car company had fitted almost 11 million cars with cheat devices designed to mislead emission testing procedures.

It lit a fire under the entire car industry and initiated the demise of diesel. 

Diesel came under increasing 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.

So buyers turning away from new diesel cars is good news?

Not quite, as despite a growth in hybrid car demand – the combined market share of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electrics has increased by 150pc this year, but the total volume for the segment at just over 6% or 4,466 units – is still far too small to offset the drop in diesel, while sales of pure electric cars have fallen by 5% this year.

In addition buyers may be turning away from new diesel cars with 10,000 less bought from January to March of this year than last year but diesel imports are still high; 20,000 used diesel cars came into the coun­try in the same period, so the number of diesel cars on our roads is increasing.

Michael Rochford, Managing Director of warns that just under 78pc of the imports coming into Ireland are diesel and 60pc are four or more years old.

“At the moment it seems like cheap diesels are being imported abundantly as people respond to immediate value to be had, despite signs from all over Europe that governments are penalising diesel and manufacturers are phasing them out altogether,” he said.

Julia Poliscanova, Clean Vehicles and Air Quality Manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment, told the Sunday Independent: “The millions of grossly polluting diesels currently on the road must be fixed by the carmakers.

“If not, they should be removed from circulation as some cities already started doing.

“Unless properly fixed, these should not be allowed to be registered in another EU country shifting toxic pollution.

“With all Europeans having equal rights to clean air, EU measures are needed to limit the exports of polluting vehicles”.

With rising CO2 emissions   and the number of diesel cars on our roads actually increasing, the greener future outlined in the government’s Project Ireland 2040 is a considerably long way off and in the shorter term exposes Ireland to high EU fines if it fails to meet its EU 2020 CO2 reduction commitments.

In a bid to convince buyers to consider going electric, the government announced two initiatives this week.

From early summer, new and second-hand EV drivers will be able to avail of discounted rates across a number of toll roads.

There will be a 50pc toll discount for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and a 25pc toll discount for plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs).

The offer will be available to the first 50,000 electric vehicles equipped with an electronic toll tag and will initially run up until the year 2022.

Also a new Government-funded awareness campaign to highlight the benefits of electric cars was launched.

If the Government is se­rious about achieving their 2030 target of banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and relying solely on electric vehicles, then they will need to do more than simply roll out awareness campaigns and offer discounted                                                                  tolls. 

The swing from 30pc market share for diesel to 70pc  in 2008 proved that buying habits can be altered by changes to motor tax.

Armed with this knowledge, the Government should now use this system to further encourage the buying of electric and hybrid vehicles and discourage the use of fossil fuels.

While they fail to take any real action we are being exposed to higher levels of nitrogen oxide and move further away than ever from achieving our CO2 emissions commitments.

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