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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

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 2018 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. Her death came after one of the worst pollution episodes and, although now publicly known, is unlikely to be unique.

Nitrogen Dioxide pollution (NO2), 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 estimated that 7 million premature deaths are due to air pollution.

Targets for phase out of diesel and petrol cars

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).

Our updated shopping guide to cars and e-cars outlines some of the proposed dates for country-wide phasing out of the traditional internal combustion engine car (IEC). Around 50 countries have announced upcoming bans of sales of new ICE passenger cars, with dates ranging from:

  • 2025 Norway
  • 2030 Germany
  • 2030 UK
  • 2035 China
  • 2050 Indonesia.

In the UK, all new sales of pure ICE cars are to end by 2030, although hybrids will still be able to be sold up until 2035.

At the COP21 conference in November 2021, car firms agreed to end the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040. But most environmental campaign groups argue that 2040 is too late. This is partly because new cars can last for around 14 years before they need replacing, so it looks like it will be well after 2040 when they really become museum pieces in most countries.

Setting ambitious targets for the future without constant vigilance can often see such targets slip. Nevertheless, when we look at how much has changed in recent 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

Our latest car guide explains how the future needs to be one of electric vehicles powered by a 100% renewable energy grid. 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.

Some companies have dragged their feet. In March 2021, the Guardian revealed that BMW, Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, and McLaren had lobbied the government hard not to bring the ICE ban forward from 2040. Honda and Ford have also succeeded in getting them to exempt hybrids until 2035, rather than the 2032 date the Climate Change Committee had wanted, by talking ominously of job losses at British car factories, most of which currently produce hybrids

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.

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 continued to argue for diesel and has become the target of campaigns by Greenpeace and others as a result. 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.”

Moving forward - the transport hierarchy and climate

As our climate gap report makes clear, the next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

Travel accounts for around 25% of our total consumer emissions. Yet, in 2021, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from travel are not being cut fast enough.

If we are to reverse this trend, three key actions for consumers are:

  •    choose electric vehicles
  •    reduce air travel where possible
  •    reduce road travel where possible

Our guides to travel booking companies, cars and bikes all provide help and guidance as to what choices to make to achieve this.

The transport hierarchy article highlights the impact of the over-reliance on personal cars, and what the carbon impacts are of different modes of transport.

The climate gap report also highlights actions that government and companies need to take alongside consumer action. These include:

  • decarbonise electricity supply
  • support walking, cycling and public transport
  • halt airport expansion
  • frequent Flyer Levy
  • aviation tax reform
  • EV purchase subsidies
  • support rapid rollout of charging infrastructure
  • mandatory zero-emission sales targets
  • continue innovating on decarbonising HGVs
  • replace business travel with online working     
  • switch to electric cars and vans
  • invest in charging infrastructure