Diesel and Petrol Car Demonisation Unjustifiable

Bearing in mind the recent Government announcement that diesel and petrol driven cars will be banned by 2040, and the recent policy announcements by the Mayor of London on the ULEZ and his Transport Strategy, it’s worth repeating what the Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) have said at the national level on this topic. Here is a summary of their recent press release (note particularly their comments on air pollution and life expectancy in some London boroughs):

Diesel and Petrol Car Demonisation Scientifically Unjustifiable says ABD

So, diesel and petrol cars will no longer be on sale after 2040, politicians have decided. They would be well-advised to consult their electorate first. For decades now, whenever government wants to change (and invariably increase!) vehicle taxation, scientifically unsound diesel and petrol car emission scare stories have been periodically rolled out by tax-hungry politicians; and supported by useful-idiot eco-lobbyists who simply wish to curtail freedom and personal mobility. The true situation is that car emissions – and indeed those of all major atmospheric pollutants – have been dramatically declining for the past four-and-a-half decades[1].

The main reason that we have city centre emissions hotspots is government’s own anti-car policies.

Traffic speeds have plummeted to below walking-pace (typically boosting, e,g, NOx & NO2 emissions by a factor of four times compared with free-flow levels) due to subtraction of road space to accommodate intermittently utilised bus- and cycle-lanes, traffic light phasing deliberately set to increase gating and a panoply of other ill-considered measures aimed at slowing, hindering and generally obstructing traffic flow.

All current car emissions scare-stories share a common thread: they are based on junk epidemiology studies. These seek to exaggerate any tenuous connection between (declining) urban pollution levels (or proxies for them) and predicted mortality advancements amongst a very specific target group in the general population: one subject to chronically-degraded lung-function through genetic, occupational or lifestyle choices – or combinations of all three. These studies invariably exhibit very low correlation coefficients and extremely wide levels of uncertainty/ inaccuracy [2],[3]. Their value as predictive tools – as opposed to newspaper-selling scare-story generators – is negligible [4].

Mortality advancement episodes are invariably precipitated by two very specific weather condition scenarios: very low humidity in combination with either: (a) very high-; or (b) very low, temperatures. There is a much stronger correlation between mortality advancement and the frequency of such weather events than there is with urban air pollution levels. Amid all the urban emissions hype and hysteria, the scientifically-illiterate, sensationalist media have overlooked a colossal paradox: the boroughs of Chelsea, Kensington and Westminster – which boast amongst the highest (and rising) average life expectancy (and average income) figures in the United Kingdom[5] – also have amongst the worst measured urban air pollution statistics[6].

The primary determinants of life expectancy in the UK remain income and consequent lifestyle choices. Given that UK urban air pollution has declined dramatically (and average life expectancies have steadily risen) year-on-year since the Clean Air Acts; and will continue to do so with continuing advances in technology, isn’t it time the environmental lobby and cynical, vote-/ tax-rise chasing politicians laid off road users and focussed their attention elsewhere?

A recent BBC Science article reported that in Central London, only 5% of NOx comes from private diesel cars[7]. Trucks, taxis and public transport represent an even greater proportion. Public transport hubs: e.g., railway and bus stations and Thames shipping are also major contributors. However, 38% originated from commercial and domestic heating systems. Indeed, the overwhelming proportions of all the problem urban emissions: NO2, NOx, PM2.5s & PM10s arise from industry, commercial and domestic heating systems, plus “imported” emissions blown in from Europe. So unless we are prepared to adopt a BANANA strategy: Ban Anything Near Anyone Near Anywhere: stop consuming, heating our homes and workplaces, ban all industry and all travel, scientifically and economically viable alternatives must be adopted.

If politicians were really committed to improving urban air quality, they would immediately implement the five Action Points below.

1.    Most importantly of all, reverse the pernicious traffic gating-, lane-subtraction-, public transport- and cycle-prioritisation policies that have brought traffic speeds in our major cities down to a staccato mix of stationary and walking pace progress – with consequent completely avoidable adverse emissions and urban air quality effects.

2.    Invoke in the short term more targeted pursuit of the worst transport sector polluters; getting the highest emissions (mainly public transport & delivery) vehicles remediated or scrapped.

3.    Persuade heating and transport fuel manufacturers to alter their refining processes; further purifying their products, yielding cleaner-burning versions which produce lower concentrations of NO2, NOx, PM2.5s, PM10s and SOx,

4.    If, as is being constantly preached to us, the future is electric, Government must facilitate and fund the development of electric vehicles with an all-weather conditions range of between 350 and 700 miles, and a recharging time comparable to that required to refill a modern, liquid-fuelled car. Performance capabilities must also match that typically achievable by modern petrol and diesel cars.

5.    Government must also provide the infrastructure investment for all UK private dwellings to have the facility to park off-road – and recharge – at least two electric vehicles per household resident at that dwelling.

But then government is only really committed to squeezing every last drop of tax revenue from road users – by fair means or (usually) foul.


1 Emissions time-series figure reproduced with permission from a Local Transport Today article authored by Mr. P. Dobson (LTT726; 07-20/07/2017,  p.20).

2 https://wintoncentre.maths.cam.ac.uk/news/does-air-pollution-kill-40000-people-each-year-uk

3 http://www.fairmotoring.com/index.php?entry_id=1500786900

4 http://www.cei.org/pdf/3452.pdf

5 http://www.getwestlondon.co.uk/news/local-news/watch-kensington-chelsea-uks-highest-8141416

6 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10758548/Why-living-in-Chelsea-could-be-deadly.html 7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38979754

Roger Lawson