Amid the froth and fury of the general election campaign, it was easy to miss one of the most significant automotive stories of the year. On 29 April, London’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must do more to satisfy European directives on cutting air pollution, and particularly on cutting emissions of nitrogen dioxide. NO2 must go.
But where does NO2 come from in the first place? Sadly for the diesel industry, a large part of the answer is… well, diesel. The Court ruling already has people speculating that, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, “diesel cars could be phased out in Britain.”
This caps what has been a remarkable and horrible turnaround in the fuel’s fortunes. At one time, as we’ve pointed out before, it seemed as though diesel was poised to take over the world. It was celebrated for being more efficient than petrol, but also – thanks to its lower carbon dioxide emissions – cleaner. And people bought into it like crazy. In 2010, for the first time ever, sales of diesel cars outstripped those of petrol cars in Britain.
But, just five years later, diesel’s rise has been checked – if not put into reverse. Diesel cars made up 50.1 per cent of last year’s new sales, which is slightly higher than the 49.8 per cent achieved in 2013, but still down on the 50.8 per cent of 2012. People were happy to pay extra for diesel engines when their wallets were filled out. Less so when they had to economise, on journeys as much as anything else, and diesel’s greater efficiency would have less chance to count.
And now this great crusade against NO2, which is likely to make diesel cars more expensive still. The European Union started it with its ‘Euro 6’ regulations. But some British legislators have been eager to follow that lead. Boris Johnson is planning an ‘ultra-low emission zone’ for London in 2020, which would see the congestion charge doubled for older diesel vehicles.
Will George Osborne join in? After the Supreme Court’s judgement, it will be worth keeping an eye on whether he acts against diesel in his forthcoming Budget. Some observers predict either incentives for scrapping diesel vehicles, or taxes for using them. Or both.
In any case, it’s likely to be a contentious matter. The Sun newspaper is among those pointing out that past Chancellors actually encouraged people to buy diesel – so it’s rather harsh to penalise those same people now. Can they not be compensated in some way? This current Chancellor, who has gone out of his way to court motorists, will surely be listening.