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Background: diesel incentives to ‘dieselgate’

Since the turn of the century, diesel vehicles have gone from being the in-vogue option for reducing CO2 emissions to public enemy number one in the fight against air pollution, with levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in some areas of the UK regularly breaching European legal limits.

This is because while diesel vehicles have lower CO2 emissions than petrol counterparts, they also have higher emissions of NOx. Lower CO2 emissions can help the Government in its bid to tackle the threat of climate change, while NOx emissions pose an immediate and direct threat to human health. Increasing concerns over air quality were compounded by the diesel emissions testing scandal in 2015 – so-called ‘dieselgate’ – which showed vehicle manufacturers had manipulated emissions test results.

Air quality plan: Ending the sale of all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040

After several legal challenges by ClientEarth (a UK charity) criticising the lack of an effective plan to reduce NO2 levels, the Government published its Air Quality Plan in July 2017. The Plan included (amongst other things) a commitment to “end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040” – stopping short of a complete ban. This commitment was first made in May 2017.

Road to Zero Strategy: How to implement the ‘2040 ban’

A year after the Air Quality Plan was published, the Government released its Road to Zero Strategy setting out how it would implement the ‘2040 ban’. This Strategy largely relies on Electric Vehicles to replace conventional petrol and diesel vehicles for which the Government is investing nearly £1.5 billion between April 2015 and March 2021.

Further information on measures to increase the rollout and uptake of EVs is available in the Library briefing, Electric vehicles and infrastructure.

Responses to the ‘2040 ban’

The Government’s 2040 target has been criticised. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee described the targets to: (i) phase out diesel and petrol vehicles and (ii) increase EV ownership as unambitious. Further, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – statutory advisors – said the targets were inconsistent with the UK’s climate change commitments. The CCC’s analysis of diesel bans around the world  shows that countries including Norway (2025), India, China, Slovenia, Austria, Israel, the Netherlands, Ireland (2030) and Scotland (2032) have all set more ambitious targets than the UK.

Trends in vehicle ownership in the UK

There is some evidence that sales of diesel vehicles are already on the wane and EV ownership is increasing. Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) made up 1.7% of all newly registered vehicles in 2017, up from 0.9% two years before. This is still only a very small fraction of the overall fleet.

European emissions testing and targets

Action at a European level is already making new conventional petrol and diesel vehicles cleaner. New diesel vehicles must meet stricter ‘Euro 6 standards’ that mean those vehicles produce lower levels of exhaust pollutants that impact air quality. And since 2009, EU legislation has set increasingly strict mandatory emission reduction targets for new cars. Nevertheless, transport was still the single largest-emitting sector of the UK economy in 2017 accounting for 28% of all UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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