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February 26, 2016

Diesel pollution: the invisible killer on our city streets

By Geraint Davies

The Labour MP for Swansea West on his campaign against diesel pollution.

When there is a flood, our streets are evacuated. Rescue teams arrive in helicopters, pictures of waterlogged homes dominate newspaper headlines, and in the aftermath politicians debate how we can prevent such a disaster from recurring.

They’re right to, as floods can be fatal. But there is a much less visible, and equally fatal, environmental disaster that plagues our streets: a deadly disaster that is being ignored by the government, despite the overwhelming evidence.

On Tuesday a joint report from the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that 40,000 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution. The diesel pollution in our cities is a public health disaster causing death through lung cancer and diseases (such as bronchitis and asthma), strokes, heart attacks and heart disease.

Poor air quality is also linked to diabetes, obesity and dementia. It is causing the loss of some 6m working days, and costing our economy £20bn, a year. Diesel particulates that are absorbed by pregnant women can harm and hurt the foetus, causing low birth weight, organ damage, premature birth and stillbirth. The list goes on.

And yet in spite of this, diesel is still considered by many to be a cleaner, greener alternative to petrol. Since 1994, the proportion of UK cars that are diesel has increased from 7.5 per cent to 36.2 per cent, with 29m registered on our roads today. Now more than 50 per cent of new cars bought are diesel as people assume they are saving money and the environment. It took the recent Volkswagen scandal to reveal the truth about poisonous emissions being pumped into our lungs in our cities.

And yet, policy remains unchanged. Unlike members of the public, the government cannot pretend that they were not warned. Also on Tuesday, I hosted a panel of experts to launch my Bill on Air Quality & Diesel Emissions. At the event were two experts who had both submitted evidence to the government, back in 1989 and 1993 respectively, warning of the dangers of pollutants in diesel.

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But, keen to meet national CO2 targets, successive governments ignored the dangers of diesel. Diesel fuel is still taxed at the same rate as normal petrol, and diesel cars often have a lower vehicle tax because of their high MPG ratings [miles per gallon, a measure of fuel efficiency].

But public health should be a key is criterion for the Treasury when setting tax rates on cars. There are no excuses for inaction anymore.

My bill, which was presented in the Commons on Tuesday without objection, calls on the government to support greener public transport initiatives, and to introduce emissions testing which reflects real road conditions – and no longer understates pollution. It also gives local authorities the power to establish low emissions zones, restrict old heavily-polluting diesel vehicles and increase pedestrianisation.

New public transport should feature electric tram systems and encourage Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPGs) as a short-term fuel alternative to electric and hydrogen buses and taxis. Trams not only avoid congestion but can be powered by renewable sources, and are of course pollution-free. LPGs burn more cleanly than diesel, since they are a lower molecular weight hydrocarbons that release much fewer particulates. These reforms to our cities’ public transport systems would be a huge step towards cleaner cities and better public health.

Our authorities must adopt a response that recognises the scale of this public health epidemic. Saving the lives of some 1000 who die prematurely each week will require immediate and coordinated action. This begins with our cities and our transport systems.

We have now heard the evidence, and we possess the technology: deaths by diesel could be consigned to history. In the meantime, the public has the right to know levels of pollution in their surroundings, and pollution warnings should be issued by the Environment Agency if sudden risks occur.

The invisible hand of diesel needs to be removed from our neighbourhoods –and public awareness of mass diesel death and the Air Quality Bill provide the pretext and means to do so.

Geraint Davies is Labour MP for Swansea West.

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