The French government, which owns about 15 per cent of carmakers Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroën, has pledged to “progressively” ban from 2015 diesel vehicles.
The November announcement by Prime Minister Manuel Valls — in which he admitted the promotion of diesel cars had been a “mistake” — was followed last month by a promise from Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to ban these vehicles from the city by 2020.
France’s stance highlights a big shift taking place in the European debate over vehicle pollution. For a decade or more, policy makers have focused on targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and this prompted carmakers to invest heavily in diesel vehicles because they emit less CO2 than the petrol equivalents.
But now the focus is turning to air quality, which raises far-reaching questions about the viability of diesel vehicles. This is because they emit harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxide that can cause serious respiratory problems.
Cities are under pressure from the European Commission to tackle pollution. Studies from the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research body, and King’s College, part of the University of London, have highlighted the scale of emissions from diesel vehicles and linked them to as many as 60,000 deaths a year in the UK.
Cities in Norway have discussed similar anti-diesel measures.
The changing stance of European policy makers presents a big problem for the continent’s biggest carmakers, including the two French state-backed companies and the big three German manufacturers.
Most exposed are BMW and Daimler, whose “diesel mix” — those vehicles as a proportion of total sales — is 81 per cent and 71 per cent respectively in Europe. Volvo is even higher, at 90 per cent. These sales reflect how governments have long been pursuing policies that pushed manufacturers and drivers towards diesel vehicles.
While Europe leads the world as the biggest market for diesel cars, there has been very little take-up in Japan and the US. “Unless the market in diesel takes off around the world — and that looks increasingly unlikely — the European manufacturers are effectively backing the wrong technology,” says Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based think-tank.
He also argues that the perceived CO2 benefits of diesel have been overstated if the overall “well to wheel” impact of using the fuel is taken into account. The fuel is more energy intensive to refine, and the types of diesel cars consumers purchase tend to be heavier than the petrol equivalents. “When you take all of these life-cycle factors into account, what you actually find is diesels are not lower CO2 than gasoline, they’re just more fuel-efficient at the tailpipe,” says Mr. Archer.
Shadow Environment Minister: We Messed up Switching Motorists to Diesel
Attempts made by the previous Labour government in the U.K. to get millions of people to switch from petrol cars to diesel vehicles in order to "save" the planet was a mistake, Barry Gardiner, shadow Environment Minister has admitted. "Hands up - there's absolutely no question that the decision we took was the wrong decision. But at that time we didn't have the evidence that subsequently we did have," Gardiner said during an episode of Channel Four's Dispatches, called "The Great Car Con."
At least ten million Britons are driving diesel cars, a trend which was encouraged by tax breaks by Gordon Brown back when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
"We also (expected) cleaner diesel engines, which we thought meant that any potential problem was a lower-grade problem than the problem we were trying to solve of CO2," Gardiner added. In 2014, more than half of all new vehicles sold were diesels, according to The Telegraph. While diesel cars may have lower CO2 emissions than petrol cars, they emit a higher amount of deadly pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide and sooty particle matter, both of which have contributed to high levels of air pollution resulting in deaths of 29,000 people every year.
The policy was a response to the 1997 Kyoto treaty, which was created to cut greenhouse gases. "It was right to move away from vehicles that push out CO2, but the impact is a massive public health problem," said Gardiner. "The real tragedy is after we set up the committee on the medical effects of air pollution and it reported back in 2010 we've had five years that this government has done nothing about it."
"When people are in cars if they've got windows closed and the air conditioning on, they probably think that they are actually immune from the emissions from the vehicles in front of them and in reality that's not the case because the gases penetrate so easily that they will get into the cabin of the vehicle and depending on the ventilation of that cabin they may actually build up to much higher concentrations," said Professor Frank Kelly, Chair of the Committee for the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, according to The Independent.