Using fossil fuels not only accelerates climate change, it also pollutes the air we breathe. Burning oil and coal releases carbon dioxide along with a host of other pollutants. Gases such as nitrogen oxides and ozone fill the surrounding air and tiny particles work their way deep into our lungs.
The impacts on our health are profound, including respiratory problems, heart disease and shortened life expectancy. The head of the World Health Organisation called air pollution “the new tobacco”, although he noted that you can move away from cigarette smoke. In contrast, when your home or school is surrounded by air pollution, there’s no escape.
Nearly half of all vehicles on UK roads run on diesel. It used to be seen by the government as a more climate-friendly fuel than petrol because it releases less carbon dioxide. As a result, incentives for diesel vehicles encouraged us to buy them. However, we know now that those claims were exaggerated by car manufacturers. Also, simply switching from one fossil fuel to another ignores the fact that we need to stop burning them altogether. Additionally, diesel cars produce more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. Most urban areas in the UK have illegal levels of NO2 pollution, which can stunt lung development in children.
What’s the deal with diesel?
In cities around the world, safe limits are breached many times over and governments are failing to act. Each year in London, the legal limits set by the EU have been broken within just a few weeks of the new year. The government has failed to meet the EU’s air pollution standards and its air quality plans have been judged in court to be unlawful – not once, not twice, but three times.
It is just not the lack of action from the government, car companies are also avoiding responsibility. Even worse, they’re lying about how polluting their cars are. For years, car companies have rigged emissions tests for their vehicles so they appear less polluting than they really are. So customers have been buying cars based on false information and plans to improve air quality have been undermined. But even though VW and other companies involved in the scandal have been hit hard, they’re still allowed to get away with tests that don’t reflect real driving conditions. Diesel vehicles being sold today can still be upto 15 times more polluting than advertised.
The only way to end the air pollution crisis in our cities is to phase out all vehicles that run on petrol or diesel from our roads and switch to electrics instead. Clean air zones are already being introduced in cities like Brighton, Oxford and London. And car companies need to test their vehicles in real driving conditions so everyone knows how polluting they really are.
As a society we already have the technology to tackle our air pollution crisis. We need to promote more walking and cycling, and improve our public transport infrastructure so that we have better alternatives to driving. Helping people switch to electric vehicles (EVs) will mean we will no longer be reliant on cars that run on fossil fuels. Some of this is already happening: numbers of EVs are increasing as prices come down and charging points are installed, while some car makers have made promising commitments. EVs will form 25% of both VW and Daimler’s ranges by 2025 and all new Volvo models from 2019 will be electric.
Governments are starting to move as well. Norway plans to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2025 and other European countries are following behind.The UK government has committed to phasing them out by 2040 but again, this doesn’t match with the urgent action needed to tackle climate change.
Of course, in the long run, EVs will only be as good as the electricity they use. We need to get rid of all fossil fuels as quickly as possible, switching to renewable energy sources and slashing carbon emissions as much as we can in the next decade.