From climate change to air quality: Diesel and the narrative shift

By Arun Khagram, Head of Consulting

From today's perspective, on the eve of Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) launch, it seems absurd that diesel was recently promoted by central government as the more environmentally sustainable liquid fuel. In 2001 Westminster introduced a sliding scale for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) making it cheaper to buy a car with lower CO2 emissions. Diesel cars, which produce lower levels of CO2 than petrol cars, were in effect promoted through financial incentives. Problem is, diesel produces four times more NO2 and 22 times more particulate matter than petrol. In other words, diesel is better for climate change, but far worse for your lungs.

ULEZ sign

The Ultra Low Emission Zone: a key achievement of the air quality narrative

In 2008 climate change fell out of fashion. Many of us were so focused on the global financial crisis that we couldn't address the looming amorphous environmental catastrophe, which always seemed just over the horizon. Although an extremely important issue, I always thought that climate change was a difficult sell. Why not appeal to peoples' desire for health, cleanliness, self-preservation, self-interest? By focusing on air pollution, we can address both climate change and the need to appeal to our short-term self-interests.

Today we are living in the age of air pollution. An Ultra Low Emission Zone covering the entirety of Greater London, politically unthinkable a decade ago, is now broadly accepted by Londoners. ULEZ will strictly regulate both diesel and petrol emissions through punitive financial measures. The acceptability of the ULEZ is partly due to the herculean task of engaging with people from all walks of life to spread awareness about air pollution, such as MP Smarter Travel's nitrogen dioxide testing in schools, or our promotion to cargo bikes for business deliveries. This narrative focus on air quality has perhaps come at the expense of emphasising climate change. However, this has been a pragmatic approach that will result in cleaner air for Londoners and contribute to a slightly cooler planet. 


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