DIRECT action against the import of Volkswagen diesel cars by Greenpeace activists yesterday showed a decisiveness that has been entirely lacking from the British government — both in relation to VW’s cheating of emissions tests and its handing of Britain’s air pollution generally.
VW is notorious for deliberately setting its cars to meet nitrous oxide emissions standards while under test conditions, and then spewing out 40 times as much when driven in real-world conditions.
VW manipulated these tests for years but it is not alone, with many other car-makers having been caught cheating.
The behaviour of the auto manufacturers will go down in history alongside the tobacco industry — which knew its products caused cancer but spent decades denying it — and the oil giants, which to this day fight to block the struggle against planet-destroying climate change despite having known the facts about it since the late 1970s.
Britain may be free of the “pea soupers” but the air we breath is deadly. Policies to promote diesel use over petrol — believing, falsely as we now know, that diesels emit less carbon dioxide and so were better for the environment — have made it more so.
Car manufacturers such as VW which deliberately lied about the emissions — and so lying about the number of lives their cars would damage — deserve much blame, but ultimate responsibility lies with the government.
The extent of air pollution and the health damage it causes have been known for years. The action we must take to reduce the harm is equally clear.
Yet the government has had to be dragged into the courts repeatedly because its air quality plans were so bad as to be illegal.
Its revised plans — which dump responsibility onto local councils — have been branded “a shabby rewrite” that puts off urgent action.
Researchers say 40,000 deaths a year can be blamed on air pollution, which plays a role in a whole host of health problems, including heart disease and dementia. The total cost of the resulting ill health and death is estimated at £20 billion a year.
Motor vehicles play a major part in this pollution — both through exhaust fumes and tiny particles from brake and tyre dust that can penetrate the lungs.
The worst pollution is concentrated in the poorest areas; the people least able to afford cars are the ones who suffer most from their use.
Some, particularly the auto industry, are keen on scrappage schemes, where car owners get money off a new vehicle for turning in their old, polluting one. This is a dead end. Even the cleanest, electric vehicles, emit substantial amounts of particulate matter.
The dirtiest vehicles should be banned from our town centres — plans known as clean air zones — as we work towards overhauling our transport system to reduce the need for private motors.
That means a properly funded, publicly owned and rationally planned public transport system that provides a top-quality service to every community.
But even more so it means redesigning our streets to allow for walking and cycling in comfort and safety. These transport modes will not only help reduce toxic air pollution but avoid the looming public health crisis of inactivity and obesity — a “slow-motion car crash … of avoidable illness and rising healthcare costs.” They are also dirt cheap to provide for — especially compared to the Tories’ £15bn-plus of roadbuilding projects.
More waffling and more delays mean more deaths, more ill health and more costs to our society as a whole. The solutions are clear — they must be seized upon.