Is it the end of the road for diesel?


Is it the end of the road for diesel asks Geraldine Herbert?

Why is the use of diesel coming under increasing scrutiny?

  • Air pollution is a growing public health problem and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that around three million deaths every year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution.
  • Diesel has an impact on air quality is coming in two key ways – through the production of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are poisonous gases derived from nitrogen and oxygen and cause breathing problems, headaches, chronically reduced lung function, eye irritation, loss of appetite and corroded teeth. Indirectly, it can also affect humans by damaging the ecosystems they rely on in water and on land—harming animals and plants. In addition Very fine soot particulate matter can penetrate the lungs and can contribute to cardiovascular illness and death.
  • NOx emissions cause the premature deaths of an estimated 72,000 Europeans a year.


How high are NOX emissions from diesel cars?

Unfortunately we don’t actually know. 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emissions etc  but the current test has been in use since the 1970s, was last updated in 1997 and is  now completely outdated.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 only 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.



Why are diesel cars so popular in Ireland?

The current situation is the result of changes made to the Motor Tax system that was intended to lower carbon emissions by pushing people towards diesel. In 2008, the Fianna Fáil-Green Party 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 70% in 2007 to 32% by the end of 2009. Given the immediate health concerns of diesel emissions, the decision to prioritise reduced carbon emissions and increasing health problems by incentivising diesel would seem to be a misguided one.


What is the impact in Ireland of diesel on air quality?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) closely monitors air quality in Ireland and in their latest report for 2015 Ireland stayed within EU limits for air quality in 2015 but vehicle emissions remain a threat to good air in the country. The report also showed that particulate matter and ozone levels were above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.


What is being done about diesel elsewhere in Europe?

1) In a bid to cut air pollution, four major cities Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens plan to ban diesel vehicles by 2025.

2) From last week French motorists in high pollution areas will be required to display a “clean sticker” on their vehicle from January. The sticker will indicate the age of the vehicle, engine type (petrol or diesel) and cleanliness rating and is a move to combat pollution blamed for 2,500 deaths a year in Paris and 5,500 across France.

3)  In London from 2018, all newly licensed black cabs will have to be zero-emissions-capable, while new diesel taxis will be banned plus the city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to make air pollution one of his main priorities.


Is diesel having an impact on car manufacturers’ considerations?

By  2021 new EU rules will be enforced that mean  car manufacturers are  exposed to big fines unless their fleet average is 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre so to achieve this they will have to sharply raise the amount of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. However this focus on reducing emissions is one of the main reasons that diesel will continue to have a market in Europe as those strict CO targets are easier to achieve with diesel and in many cases less costly than developing expensive hybrid technology.


Could we be looking at levies and bans in Ireland too?

Levies and bans are probably a good way off but instead the move away from diesel is likely to be more organic as diesel cars become more expensive due to the technology required to meet emission standards, the range in electric cars gets better and they become cheaper and more hybrids become available slowly the reasons why we bought diesel cars in the first place will be eliminated.


You can listen back here to Geraldine Herbert talking to Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1 and about the future of diesel


Geraldine Herbert

25th January, 2017

Author: Geraldine Herbert

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

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