Diesel charges: pushing poor drivers off the road

London mayor Sadiq Khan is waging war on diesel. His latest move is an exclusion of certain diesel cars from London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). From April 2019, drivers of diesel cars built before September 2015 must pay an additional charge to use the roads within the city’s congestion-charge zone, even during times when the congestion charge doesn’t apply. This follows the earlier announcement that an extra toxicity charge (T-Charge) will apply to pre-2006 diesel vehicles entering London from October this year.

‘Hurrah! Clean air!’, Khan’s supporters cheer. But what about London’s poorer drivers, who may not be well serviced by public transport, or may not have enough money to pay the charge or buy a new car? How will a fresh breeze over London help them get to work?

The problem is that Khan is taking his cue from alarmist green organisations and public-health zealots without checking the facts. Even the BBC – which ran a series of bland reports on London’s air pollution – has pointed out that the favourite claim of green campaigners, that air pollution kills thousands of Londoners every year, is based on a statistical sleight of hand.

Diesel has recently gone from being a climate-change hero to a climate-change villain. Only 10 years ago, the EU and the UK government encouraged drivers to use diesel cars to cut carbon emissions. The chief scientific advisor responsible for the UK’s implementation of that guidance was Sir David King. ‘It turns out we were wrong’, King said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week. However, rather than take responsibility for the error, he merely blamed manufacturers. And rather than urging against the desire to turn public-health panics into policy, he welcomed Khan’s impatient calls for ‘clean air’.

All this panic over air pollution does is provide vapid politicians with a sense of purpose and legitimacy. Consider this tweet issued by Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Air pollution is now so bad our children are suffering while the Tories just run our country down. It must stop.’ The fact that air pollution is a fraction of what it once was, and that emphasis on diesel was a policy introduced by Labour, doesn’t seem to bother Corbyn. On the other side of the chamber, prime minister Theresa May appears to have promised that diesel-car owners will not be punished for following government advice. This will likely amount to a scrappage scheme, at considerable public expense.

A simpler solution would be to look again at green policies, and to judge whether they work and whether they really serve the public interest. But don’t hold your breath. Khan’s policies are now likely to be introduced by revenue-hungry councils across the UK. The last mayoral election gave us a choice between multimillionaire eco-warrior Zac Goldsmith and not-quite-as-green Khan. As a result of this lack of political contest, cars are being banned from roads and people who can’t afford the cost are being left without transport. This panic over air pollution has got to stop.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

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