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An end in sight for fossil-fuelled motoring

Rob Harrison reports on how governments are finally moving against the poisonous impacts of diesel and the climate impacts of petrol

A few months after our last Cars guide was published, in 2015, the ‘dieselgate scandal’ erupted in the USA. VW ended up receiving one of the largest fines in corporate history (around $30 billion) for fitting ‘defeat devices’ in its diesel cars to cheat US government pollution tests.

A mainstream global business with, ironically, a reputation for good sustainability reporting, was caught out deliberately choosing to prioritise company profits over human life.

In June this year, Professor Holgate, a UK pollution scientist, managed, for the first time, to put a name and a face to someone the motor industry had killed. Ella Kissi-Debrah was a 9-year-old girl who lived just 25 metres from London’s South Circular road. She had been admitted to hospital 28 times before dying in 2013 from acute respiratory failure.

Ella’s house was also just one mile away from a government pollution monitoring station and Professor Holgate found that spikes in air pollution had coincided with all but one of Ella’s emergency admissions.1 Her death came after one of the worst pollution episodes and, although now publicly known, is unlikely to be unique.

NO2 pollution, which is produced largely by diesel vehicles, causes 5,900 early deaths every year in London, and it took only five days for Brixton Road in London to break its NO2 limits for the whole of 2017.

Schoolchildren in Beijing commonly wear air pollution masks on the way to school and the World Health Organisation now estimates that one in eight of total global deaths are linked to air pollution exposure making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

Targets for phase out

Since dieselgate, there has been a sea-change in government responses to the issue. People are moving first against the poisonous impacts of diesel and then against the climate impacts of both petrol and diesel. It is as if the weight of evidence against inadequately regulated motoring has simply been too much for even the best-funded corporate lobbyists to hold back any longer (though their influence remains substantial).

  Ban to commence
China In the near future/some models already banned
Britain 2040
France 2040
India An aspirational target that all cars sold should be electric by 2030 
Norway By 2025 - all vehicles sold should be zero emission
Ireland 2030
Israel 2030
Netherlands 2030
Taiwan 2040
Scotland 2032

The table above shows how some major economies have announced that, from a variety of dates in the future, all new cars sold must be electric or ‘zero emission’.

Most environmental campaign groups argue that 2040 is too late, and WWF and the Green Alliance have published a compelling document making a social and economic case for the UK phase out date to be moved forward to 2030.

New cars can now last for around 14 years before they need replacing, so it looks like it will be well after 2050 when they really become museum pieces in most countries.

Many companies setting ambitious targets far off into the future and how, without constant vigilance, it is not uncommon to see such targets slip. Nevertheless, when we look at how much has changed in the last three years, it is hugely encouraging to see clear(ish) shared goals and ambitions spreading so fast around the world. More needs to be done, particularly around electrifying larger buses and trucks, but it is encouraging nonetheless.

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The future’s electric

As we noted in our last cars guide in 2015, the future is now clearly one of electric vehicles powered by a 100% renewable energy grid. And it is the emergence of electric vehicles as a viable replacement technology which has been key to giving governments the confidence to draw a line under petrol and diesel. Nevertheless, as with the phase-out of diesel, it is clear that some car manufacturers are embracing this change more enthusiastically than others.

Table: electric ambition and diesel phase out date

The table above combines Greenpeace research with an Ethical Consumer score to identify the companies with the most ambitious policies towards all-electric offerings. Performance on this table has also influenced our best buy advice for cars.   

Diesel falls off a cliff

Following the dieselgate scandal, UK sales of diesel cars have fallen by 17% since 2017 and by 37% comparing March 2018 with March 2017. With regulators no longer convinced by the promises of cleaner diesel, a range of tools are now being employed to discourage its use. Key amongst these are low emission zones inside big cities and the ‘Cities’ table below charts their spread.

Table: countries banning fossil-fuelled cars

There is a corporate responsibility issue here too, and the table on the previous page shows which have most enthusiastically embraced the idea that diesel is a technology of the past. The two biggest car companies in the world, Toyota and VW, sit on opposite sides in the debate which is why much of Greenpeace’s energy in this space is now targeting VW.

The power of the car industry lobby

The car industry spends €15 to 20 million a year on lobbying just one regulator – the EU in Brussels. For this, it employs more than 100 full-time lobbyists. The European Parliament’s own ‘Dieselgate Report’ noted that the European Commission “lacked the political will and decisiveness to [...] give priority to the protection of public health of citizens” over the economic interests of the car industry in the years preceding the scandal.

And although there has been a change in rhetoric by governments, noted above, VW particularly continues to argue for diesel and has become the target of campaigns by Greenpeace and others as a result. And in 2017, two years after the scandal, meetings on cars between the German government and external organisations were listed as follows: with the car industry and its lobbyists 325; with trades unions 90; with environmental organisations 21.

At our Ethical Consumer conference on Challenging Corporate Power in 2017, we noted how mandatory lobby registers and publication of meetings were an important step in trying to regain control. It was also noted how a ban on all lobbying by some industries (like tobacco) had been introduced in some jurisdictions. It looks like there are compelling reasons for extending this idea to the car industry’s lobbyists.

According to campaigners Corporate Europe Observatory, “the power of the car industry lobby makes scandal inevitable.”