Diesel imports are only part of the problem

There is a glut of older diesels on our roads and its not just as a result of imports writes Geraldine Herbert

With only weeks to go to the budget there have been calls from within the motor industry to ban the importation of used cars from the UK. James McCarthy, CEO of Nissan Ireland, said that unless a ban is introduced on cars imported from the UK that do not meet the current Euro 6 emissions standard, it will be impossible for the Government to meet its target of reducing carbon emissions. The State is facing significant fines from the EU for exceeding our expected emission levels. Ford Ireland chairman and managing director Ciarán McMahon echoed similar sentiments earlier this week but fell short of calling for an outright ban. It is clear however that the motor industry feels the time has come for the Government to act.

Since 1992, European Union regulations with the aim of improving air quality, have imposed strict limits concerning pollutant emissions on new cars. The EU’s latest and stricter Euro 6 emissions standards require diesel cars to be fitted with emissions control technology to reduce and control their tailpipe NOx emissions.

Three years ago, 70% of new cars sold in Ireland were diesel, today diesel accounts for just over 50% of new car sales. This trend is seen clearly across all European countries and even the bullish diesel SUV market is moving toward petrol and hybrid power. Sales of petrol cars grew this year and plug-in hybrids and hybrids now account for almost 9% of the market. The demand for electric cars is up 42 % this year though from a very small base of 622 sold in 2017.

But the number of diesel cars on our roads continues to rise due to the scale of monthly used imports from the UK. These have been steadily rising since June 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union. The decline of sterling and the uncertainty created by Brexit has resulted in a month on month increases. Imports from the UK, however, are not a new development, there has always been a clear correlation between a drop in sterling and an increase in used car imports. The figures from the past decade suggest there is always a core market in Ireland for UK used cars irrespective of prevailing market conditions or the price of sterling.

Imports reached a peak in 2008 when over 64,000 used cars were imported. By 2010 the figure had dropped to 40,000 and remained at this level over the next five years.

This year on average 8,000 cars are imported into Ireland each month and 79% of these are diesel.

Diesel car sales in the UK have been hit hard and suffered a 30% drop this year. The drop in sales has weakened resale values and this has resulted in an increase of cheap diesel cars being offloaded here.   

It’s not so long ago that diesel was the green fuel, promoted and incentivised by governments as a way to save the planet. European governments viewed diesel cars as a fast and effective means to hit their CO2 reduction targets and 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.  In Ireland, the Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition changed the VRT and motor tax system in 2008, from one based on engine capacity to the current one based on CO2 emissions. The result was that sales dramatically shifted in favour of diesel and consequently, the resale value of older cars with the old, higher tax rates fell.

But the VW diesel scandal that unfolded in September 2015 undermined the entire car industry and highlighted the unfit for purpose car testing regime that was in place across the EU. For decades car makers have been legally exploiting EU loopholes to achieve the best possible score for emissions and fuel economy. A new test, the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), is now in place. And while it will shed no light on the cars currently on our roads, it will increase the price of many new cars as the test is more accurate and will reflect higher CO2 emission figures. This will only further compound the problem of imports as new cars will cost more and face higher motor taxes while used imports will be subject to the old arrangements.

So while the car industry reassures us that today’s range of Euro 6 emission diesel cars are the ‘cleanest’ in history. The real issue is not the diesels of the future, it is the diesels currently on our roads, regardless of where they originated either as imports or bought new here, as over 70% of these cars now on our roads are emitting unquantified levels of pollution as a result of a misguided tax policy from 2008 and years of inadequate testing. In the meantime, the Taoiseach has signalled his intention to increase carbon tax in the Budget next month which would see fuel price rises, but the impact would be equally felt by both petrol and diesel owners. It also seems likely that no change will be made to the current motor tax system thereby penalising those who buy new cars with higher prices and higher taxes while indirectly making imports more attractive.

This article was first published in the Sunday Independent on September 14th, 2018


Geraldine Herbert

20th September 2018

Author: Geraldine Herbert

Motoring Editor and Columnist for the Sunday Independent and editor of wheelsforwomen. Geraldine is also a regular contributor to Good Housekeeping (UK), EuroNews and to RTÉ, Newstalk, TodayFM, BBC Radio and Vigin Media. You can follow Geraldine on Twitter at @GerHerbert1

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