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Diesel cars are “literally killing people” and the government was wrong to subsidise diesel cars – says former minister

Just days after the world’s largest car maker, Volkswagen, revealed that nearly 1.2m UK vehicles are involved in the diesel emissions scandal, former science minister Lord Drayson has said that it was a mistake for the UK government to support diesel cars, warning that they are “literally killing people”.

In 2001 the then-chancellor Gordon Brown introduced tax breaks for diesel cars as they emit less carbon dioxide than petrol cars. However it is now known that diesel engines emit other harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

Lord Drayson served in Gordon Brown’s government from 2008-10 and recently told Radio 4’s Today programme: “We did get it wrong. We now have a much better understanding than we did just a few years ago of what are the health effects of the products of diesel cars and they are literally killing people so it’s clear that in retrospect that was the wrong policy.”

Acknowledging nearly half the cars in Britain and Europe are diesel models, he stressed the importance of acting quickly and he has urged the car industry to accelerate the development of electric vehicles.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) and Transport for London (TfL) recently reported that 9,500 people die prematurely in the capital each year due to air pollution and highlighted a diesel exhaust as a major contributor.

The City of London Corporation has called for urgent action on cutting diesel emissions and chairman of the Corporation’s environment committee, Wendy Mead, said:

“Diesel was sold as an environmental solution but it is in fact an invisible killer. There are a range of proposals for reform of the UK's air quality strategy, but we urgently need to move further and faster on reducing pollution from diesel vehicles.”

“We urge the Government to consider wider actions that can be taken to reduce emissions from diesel vehicles in the short term.”

Lord Drayson, whose own business invests in clean energy, has called for vehicle exclusion zones in cities, more rigorous independent testing of diesel cars and a new car scrappage scheme for diesels.

“I think we should have things like a car scrappage scheme where people who want to trade in their diesel get an electrical car or hybrid,” he said. “I think that's something the government should support.”

Lord Drayson also noted that the UK’s last scrappage scheme, introduced in 2009 to boost the economy, had been very successful.

“The car industry has got to accelerate the development of electric vehicles and we are going to see the need for a greater adoption of hybrids,” he said.

These views are likely to alarm owners of diesel cars, many of whom bought them believing they were less damaging to the environment. However, in defence of the diesel engine, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mike Hawes said that it is wrong to penalise all diesel engines.

“The latest diesel vehicles are the cleanest ever, with particulate emissions all but eliminated by filters and sophisticated after-treatment systems effectively reducing nitrogen oxide levels by 92% compared to earlier generations,” Hawes said.

“Given that diesel cars emit 15-20% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than a petrol equivalent, they also make a significant contribution to climate change targets - an environmental challenge which cannot be ignored in this debate.”

President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Richard Folkson, said that there should be no rush to scrap diesel cars because of their contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

Speaking to the BBC, he said: “If all new fossil fuel cars were to be solely petrol tomorrow for example, our average carbon emissions would increase by 16%.”

“What we need is a rapid introduction of a new testing regime that much more accurately reflects driver behaviour. Diesel has many attractive characteristics ... this is not the time to restrict our choices by casting it aside.” Recent news of the Volkswagen emissions scandal have re-ignited the petrol versus diesel debate and raised questions over tests, as Paul Wilkinson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine considers in the following Sky News segment:

What are your views on diesel cars? Do you own one? Maybe you are one of the many drivers affected by the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

If so we’d love to hear your comments:

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