/ Motoring

Does air pollution from cars affect you?

car pollution

Since London was issued with its first ‘very high’ air pollution alert at the start of the year, much has been written about the impact poor air quality has on our health. But does it affect yours?

Brixton Road in Lambeth, south London, became famous earlier this year when it breached its annual NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) allowance – just five days into 2017.

Later that month, on 23 January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued the first ‘Very high’ air-quality warning for the city.

This advises everyone within the capital to reduce physical exertion – particularly if they’re outside and by busy roads.

Cue a whole lot of media attention around the poor quality of the air we breathe.

Much of this has focused on NO2 (one of the NOx gasses), which is produced in large quantities by diesel cars.

And, while some car manufacturers are making progress on reducing the amount of toxic emissions from their models, many have a long way to go.

In our recent tests, we found that, despite universal limits, there are huge differences in the amount of NOx emissions produced by diesel cars from different brands, with Renault and Jeep among the biggest air polluters of the car makers we tested.

How bad is NO2?

So, what impact does NO2 have on your health? Well, there have been a number of scary reports concerning just that.

One study published in 2015 by the Environment Research Group at King’s College London, estimated that Londoners lost up to 88,113 life years to NO2 during 2010.

And it isn’t just London where poor air quality is a problem.

The Royal College of Physicians thinks around 40,000 deaths in the UK per year can be attributed to air pollution.

While a report from the European Environment Agency named poor air quality as the largest environmental health risk in Europe.

It’s widely accepted that NO2 inflames the airways and can lower immunity against lung infections.

Its effects are more pronounced on those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly and those who have an existing lung condition.

The affects

As a result to worsening air quality, major cities around the world are now committing themselves to banning diesel cars by 2025.

But do you notice poor air quality?

As someone with mild asthma, who lives by the sea but works in London, I notice a palpable difference in air quality between where I live and where I work.

That said, it isn’t the air quality that stops me from going out for a run on London’s streets during my lunch hour (it’s usually utter laziness).

But some people really suffer. The British Lung Foundation put me in contact with Janet Morrison, 62, whose existing lung conditions are worsened by traffic pollution.

‘I grew up in London but in 1966, at the age of 11, I moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex. I had asthma as a child, but was diagnosed with emphysema and then bronchiectasis in my 30s and 40s – I’m now 62.

‘There’s a lot of traffic in Southend. It’s busy during the rush hours, but much worse at the weekend with all the tourist traffic, especially in the summer.

‘When the pollution gets bad, it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. I hate going out when pollution is high, but I can’t let it stop me.

‘I try to manage it with my inhaler, but if I’m driving somewhere in traffic, I have to close the vents in my car to stop the air coming in.’

What about you? Do you notice days when the pollution is bad? Do you have to take any precautions? Or has it never bothered you?

Comments
Profile photo of Melanie Train
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From spring into mid autumn, I often commute into central London by bicycle and you definitely notice when air quality is poor. I haven’t managed to get back on the bike yet, but I’m half tempted to get one of those face masks when I do.

Profile photo of John Ward
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I am not sure how much worse London is than other major towns and cities. Even in Norwich city centre, which is on high ground twenty miles from the coast and gets a fair blast of fresh air everyday, we notice the pollution levels in the main streets – many of which have recently been given over entirely to buses, taxis and distribution vehicles most of which leave their engines running while idle. I suspect most other commercial centres are similar.

Given London’s pollution levels I am surprised that Mayor Khan wants to expand the capital in all directions and increase the population. I feel a programme of dispersal would be better for Londoner’s health and well-being. This would require a complete prohibition of all new office buildings and commercial premises and strict controls on the reconstruction of existing sites.

The diesel car, with its NOx and particulate filth, is an unnecessary, anti-social and objectionable vehicle that should be condemned to an early demise.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I wonder how we replace all those commercial vehicles, let alone cars – diesel engines are ubiquitous in lorries, trains, buses, vans, plant, ships……….
Banning universally is unnecessary, but controlling petrol and diesel vehicles in town and cities can be done. You have to replace their role with other cleaner transport . how can that be done quickly? I don’t think it can so it will be a gradual process.

Which? says “data from our new test programme shows that petrol cars can produce more PM than diesels, and PM is a big part of the air pollution problem.”. Looks like we’ll need to ban petrol vehicles as well.

I’ve chosen to live in the sticks and hope that benefits my health. I would like to see those in towns and cities helped, but we need to think of practical solutions.

Profile photo of John Ward
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I agree that it will be extremely difficult and a long term project to replace diesel engines in commercial vehicles. They will progressively become more efficient and less polluting but they will be with us for many years. There is no effective substitute for deliveries. All the more reason to deal with the problems caused by cars which can be substituted by electric and hybrid alternatives, can be banned from town and city centres, and for which public transport can be a practical alternative in many instances. Yes, over time petrol-engined cars will also have to be subject to stricter controls as well as diesel-engined ones, but I think the pollution-reducing priority is with diesels so we need to start with those.

Hybrid buses are in operation and can become still cleaner. I am extremely disappointed that the government is not so committed to electrification of the railways now and sees ‘bi-mode’ trains as the answer – they are basically electric trains fitted with supplementary diesel engines to take over where the electrification stops so the electric trains will have to drag around the extra weight of a noisy and dirty diesel engine plus its fuel tank. This is a monumental Department for Transport fiasco that has received little media attention but will cost many millions of pounds to implement as well as additional running costs throughout the life of the trains.

At least the Underground and Overground and most of the suburban National Rail routes are all-electric in London. The Great Western suburban routes are being electrified leaving just the Chiltern lines and Essex Thameside [C2C] route as diesel powered into the capital. To think that London once had extensive electric tramways and trolleybus networks but now has some of the worst pollution in the country.

Profile photo of Adrian Porter
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I think a positive step is the new wave of electric (range extender) black cabs that have been announced. These still have a small petrol generator to help feed the battery, but otherwise they are electric cars.

I agree that we shouldn’t ban all diesel cars – our research has shown that diesel cars are not equal. Cars produced in the last year may officially meet Euro 5 or Euro 6, which apply the same set of emissions limits to all cars regardless of size or shape (though the limits in the newer Euro 6 are generally lower and tougher than the older Euro 5 set of limits), but in our tests – there is a huge variance between cars from different brands: http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/cars/article/air-pollution-and-car-emissions/from-nox-to-co-dirtiest-and-cleanest-carmakers-revealed

More needs to be done to weed out the big NOx polluters; older cars and cars from brands we know to produce excessive amounts of emissions. There are new official tests coming in from September this year, hopefully that will help stop the biggest polluting cars from going on sale, but it won’t do anything for older cars.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The LTC’s cab needs a minimum zero emission range of 30 miles per day to meet TfL’s requirements. London taxis do 150 to 200 miles per day, LTC say. So the extra miles depend upon a petrol engine/generator which although it powers the electric drive will be polluting. The same company is launching a van, with a battery range of around 66 miles then a further 340 miles using A 4-cylinder petrol driven generator.

Until we get much higher capacity batteries that will last the working day these seem to be just a step in the right direction. Why do we need so many cabs when we have a good non-polluting underground system? Rather than do a whole trip by cab. perhaps cabs at stations for the final mile or so might be healthier, with maybe more chance of staying on battery power.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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It may have had electric transport, but it had filthy air from all the solid-fuel domestic fires. Before that it was polluted by horse excrement, urine, and their exhaust gases.

No one seems to have the courage or common sense to face up to the real problem – too many vehicles at a time. Just tinkering with individual vehicle emissions will help, but not cure. We need vehicles with sustained electric capacity for town use, switching to a conventional decent size engine for out of town – like a better BMW i3.

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Dan says:
24 March 2017

You can tell by the way Which write their articles you have no car lovers on your staff. I’ve seen you describe the Focus RS as the boy racers version of the Focus (a stupid, uninformed description), and go on about its high pm emissions at motorway speeds. Erm, what a surprise, it’s a 350hp monster!!! Who would buy one worried about emissions?! Anyway, i drive a 3.0 litre Jag and enjoy booting it everywhere i go, no doubt flying past anyone on the road who works for Which!! Oh…And any car lovers knows a good car is much more than just emissions, to omit a car from being a good buy just because in your opinion it’s emissions are too high is ridiculous.

Profile photo of John Ward
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But car buyers are terribly concerned about emissions, Dan. That is the reason they mostly give for having bought a Volkswagen and why they are so aggrieved about the corrupted test results.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I suspect many of those who post about VW emissions are more concerned about getting compensation. Otherwise, why did they buy a diesel in the first place? But then, I’m a bit cynical.

Profile photo of alfa
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You only had to look at the rear of buses & lorries to wonder why on earth you would want a diesel car.

Profile photo of Adrian Porter
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Hi Dan,

Excessive emissions are both a serious health problem and something that is almost unrelated to engine power and mpg. You probably saw in the same article that the Smart car (Smart ForTwo) also generated incredibly high particulate matter (PM) emissions in Which? tests, and from a 90hp engine mounted in one of the smallest cars you can buy – a car that is a world away from the Ford Focus RS.

We do our own emission testing and some cars create a massive amount of NOx, PM or CO. And yes, we penalize any car that produces excessively high emissions, but again, having a powerful car does not mean you produce a large amount of emissions. As a case in point, and sticking to Jags, in the past few years we’ve tested the 5.0-litre, 380hp V8 XK cab, the 2.2-litre, 197hp XF and a pair of 2-litre XEs – and no high level of emission, any emission, was recorded from any of them.

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KEITH MERRY says:
24 March 2017

How long ago was it when we were encouraged to buy diesel cars, rather than petrol cars?

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Chris Thomas. says:
24 March 2017

I remember reading a few years ago, that a cow puts out as much methane in a day as a 4×4 in London, we can’t do anything about them, can we?

Profile photo of John Ward
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The cow’s methane output is part of the natural and historical baseload, and, as you say Chris, there is not much we can do about that if we want milk, meat and leather products. Luckily most of this gas is expelled in the countryside where it quickly dissipates. The internal combustion engine is capable of being modified and controlled and, as Which?’s statistics show, some cars are much less polluting than others, so the bad ones can be identified and progressively eliminated and the economics can be managed to incentivise electric propulsion, or reduced mileage. or exclusion from sensitive areas.

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RJR says:
24 March 2017

I was born in 1941 and remember the smog air pollution from coal fires and early combustion engines, which was far worse than the pollution that we have today as I used to ride a bicycle through traffic and at the end of my journey my face was like some one in the black and white minstrel shows. The clean air act was supposed to take care of that but does it? Heavy vehicles produce the worse pollution plus slow moving cars and vans which due to traffic calming are made to do so by local authorities. The other thing which people do not seem to appreciate is air pollution from aircraft which saturate our skies with thousands of gallons each time they take off. A jet engined air liner uses more fuel than a car uses in a year just to take one trip and records show that at any one time in a day or night there are 6000 aircraft in the sky, where does all that fuel go, it does not stay in the sky, but descends down to earth not just on our cities but into our country side and oceans. No one seems to mind this happening. The other causes of heavy pollution is the combustion of coal fired power stations and the manufacture of fuel whether petrol or diesel in refining plants but that does not seem to figure in government control. It is true that people are suffering and dying due to our misuse of our planets resources but this has always been the case. So what is the answer go back to horse and carts on land and sail across our oceans by ship or try to be sensible about our poor technology.

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Lucy says:
24 March 2017

I don’t understand why more isn’t being done about engine idling. Men especially seem quite incapable of sitting in a stationary car without the engine running. Tradesmen will sit and have their lunch engine running,
windows open (so it is not just about keeping warm) breathing in the lovely fumes they are pumping out and polluting the whole street. Parents picking up children from school still sit there waiting with the engine running. There seems to be no understanding amongst the general population about how selfish engine idling is. We need to educate people much more and perhaps give traffic wardens powers to fine people. Notices in supermarket car parks would also help. Head teachers in schools should tell the parents not to engine idle.
And modern cars do need warming up guys! Switch the engine on when you are ready to move off not as soon as you get in the car.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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We can, quite rightly, criticise the EC for their poor emissions testing using the NEDC (New European driving Cycle – except its very old). However they are currently trialling a Real Driving Emissions test (RDE) that measures emissions under a wide range of driving conditions on the road. This will lead to emissions regulations under more realistic conditions, as well as under laboratory conditions. The NEDC test is also being replaced by the WLTP that again is much more representative of real life driving.

I hope Which?’s tests reflect these EC test regimes otherwise results may not be comparable.

Profile photo of walterm
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I don’t understand why more isn’t being done about engine idling. Men especially seem quite incapable of sitting in a stationary car without the engine running. Tradesmen will sit and have their lunch engine running,
windows open (so it is not just about keeping warm) breathing in the lovely fumes they are pumping out and polluting the whole street. Parents picking up children from school still sit there waiting with the engine running. There seems to be no understanding amongst the general population about how selfish engine idling is. We need to educate people much more and perhaps give traffic wardens powers to fine people. Notices in supermarket car parks would also help. Head teachers in schools should tell the parents not to engine idle.
And modern cars do need warming up guys! Switch the engine on when you are ready to move off not as soon as you get in the car.

Profile photo of Clive
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1. We are so addicted to our cars, I have long thought that we will never abandon them until either we run out of fossil fuels or we choke. People are choking already, and the number of children with asthma has, I read, quadrupled in ten years. Very, very sad. One day we will marvel at the fact that, to get our bodies comfortably from A to B, we take one or two tons of metal, plastic and rubber with us every time.
(Fifty years ago I was a bus conductor – our buses were usually full – now we cannot even afford two crew to keep the harassed driver’s attention where it should be – driving, without continual distractions. Progress!).

2. Here in Ulster we are perhaps very lucky to have thousands of miles of fresh sea air blasting in from the Atlantic on the prevailing westerlies. Not smug, but grateful.

3. In 1958 we emasculated the railways. Every penny spent on roads was called ‘investment’ – every penny on rail was called ‘subsidy’. Subtle brainwashing.

4. The world enjoys castigating VW for the emission scandal – no doubt hoping for ‘compensation’ when the shouting is loud enough to turn into an irresistible mob. Why compensation? Drivers have lost nothing, the poor diddums.
My 2l diesel Passat was politely and efficiently ‘normalised’ free by VW with an electronic tweak. I guarantee that even before that tweak, it was one of the cleanest diesels available. Your research now shows that to be a fact. So why pillory VW continually? Do you not notice how quiet other manufacturers were, and are, about the ‘VW’ emissions? I bet they all have their fingers crossed behind their backs, hoping that the pressure remain on VW, and the spotlight not turn inexorably towards themselves. Surely Renault should take pride of place now in the emissions scandal – for much more genuinely harmful reasons.
(OK, I’m biased – have had five VWs, of which three Passats. Only had to sell two of the Passats when I emigrated each time … broke my heart when the first GL5 – petrol -went after 18 years companionship. Lovely engine …

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Ian says:
25 March 2017

We are pensioners and bought a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0CRD in 2012. IT had a full service history which has been maintained ever since. The Jeep is used safely to tow our caravan weighing 2000kg as it has a kerbweight higher than the weight of the caravan. We live in a rural area so on some occasions a beefy vehicle is required. At the time of purchasing diesels were supposed to be okay. We cannot afford at this time to replace the vehicle and we doubt of any petrol engine vehicles are capable of safely towing the caravan. So where does this leave us as the Jeep is obviously fully paid up and who is going to give a pensioner credit to buy a later model vehicle?

Profile photo of RayS
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re Article in Which? April by Adrian Porter (p23: “Car emissions: not all diesels are created equal”)

If I may digress a little since there is an important issue in all of this which seems to have been – as far as I can find – completely missed. Pose the pollution question this way: Do we want to save the world, or save the city!

Very simply put diesel power is the most efficient overall (cradle to grave) power source available so it could be argued that if all transport was diesel it would greatly help in the fight against global warming. However, local pollution caused by diesel emissions would be worse.

So, save the city or save the planet… difficult choice. Could the answer be “both”? Find an efficient way of producing hydrogen – that would do it. Possibly, but we are not there yet…

Profile photo of malcolm r
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We can start to “save the city” by restricting the amount of traffic allowed to enter, particularly at peak times. Certainly not charging them to pollute – why does extra money help us breathe? We need to tackle the means of transporting people efficiently into and around towns and cities without everyone using their own personal polluter.

Profile photo of John Ward
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I find it hard to accept that diesel propulsion is the most efficient power source, especially in towns and cities where the engine is idling for lengthy periods and even when the vehicle is moving the engine is not operating at its optimum rate for power generation and a cleaner exhaust. Diesel engines are also noisy which makes life unpleasant for people close to roads.

Profile photo of RayS
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You’re right in one respect i.e. most car engines, diesel or petrol, are optimised for higher speeds (usually around 56mph) than typical city values especially the most recent trend to 20 mph. That means more pollution – once again a difficult compromise kill by speed or by more pollution? Cynical or what?

Profile photo of malcolm r
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In terms of converting fossil fuel into work the diesel engine is around 45% efficient compared with petrol 30%. Stop-start minimises idling. So it is one of the most efficient for independent transport. The problem is the conditions of use – not its inherent efficiency. So any power plant that runs but is not producing work is of course used inefficiently and will produce excess pollution. That is the problem we need to tackle. Control access to areas where population is concentrated and traffic volume currently is too high.

Small gas turbines have efficiencies of 25-35% but are unsuitable for direct drive, so for vehicles could generate electricity for battery storage in a hybrid vehicle. The upper limit currently for large gas turbines seems to be around 65% so possible scope for an improvement for vehicle power plants.

Profile photo of John Ward
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Thanks Malcolm. The efficiency per se is not the chief factor but the overall environmental impact. Hauling batteries around is not exactly efficient, but assuming the environmental impact of producing a set of batteries is on a par with the manufacture of an internal combustion engine the running function has negligible pollution discharge and is certainly much quieter. I believe direct charging from mains electricity supplies has the potential to be the most efficient and least harmful overall as a variety of input sources are available including renewables, transmission losses can become a negative factor however.

Profile photo of DerekP
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For personal transport in towns and cities, legs, bicycles, electrically assisted bicycles and scooters (“small power two wheelers”) can all be viable alternatives to cars.

Profile photo of wavechange
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How about one of these?

Credit: c5owners.com

Profile photo of John Ward
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I think rickshaws might gain traction too, Derek.

Profile photo of RayS
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It’s quite difficult to get good/reliable information on what’s called “Life Cycle Analysis” (AKA cradle-to-grave) which compares various energy sources and includes the environmental costs (emissions) of the raw material, operation, decommissioning etc. Siemens have produced a document on wind power which does have most aspects of the environmental costs of energy production by wind power and shows that it is hugely better for example than conventional power stations (almost too good to be true!). One pertinent publication (2016) by the US Department of Energy reports that the “overall” green house gas emissions (GHG) based on present technology for internal combustion engines is 460 gCO2/mile for petrol (gasoline) and 390 gCO2/mile for diesel (about 15% less than petrol))…..it’s a long document (182pp) and requires some fortitude to read it all! However, whichever emissions problem is being analysed, the one conclusion is that we need significant reductions.

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We are where we are. Almost everyone in this country has a car and almost every car is powered either by petrol or diesel. Road transport is almost entirely diesel driven. The country currently accepts that almost everyone can use the road and almost everyone uses the car to do anything outside his/her immediate environment. That’s the status quo. Changing that means providing alternative power for vehicles or changing our entire way of life so that personal transport is replaced by something else. I don’t see that happening, because we see our own transport as an essential part of being who we are and enabling us to do what we wish, when we wish. Curbing personal transport in towns and cities might be done by making this prohibitive in cost, though I wonder how long it will be before the motorist stops sitting quietly by, doing nothing. The outcome of city bans is that all vehicles travel the arteries and park somewhere outside. That’s not conducive for theatre visits, heavy shopping, visiting a city restaurant or living inside the no car zone. So, this is possible, but has side effects, which might reduce city life as well as its pollution. The changing of our car dependency is not something that will happen. It is too embedded in who we are. Battery technology is improving year on year, but we are far from producing anything that replaces what we drive now both in terms of infrastructure and practical use. Even the latest vehicles require a ninety minute stop every hundred or so miles at a place where charging is available. A queue at one of these points is likely to be hours long. Imagine the car parking necessary to charge every car with a flat battery. The fear of pollution drives the search for alternatives and the lack of these makes for solutions that cripple our freedom and probably won’t solve the problem. This particular branch of science is moving forward too slowly for our needs and no one is prepared to commit entirely to any of its branches, though electric in one form or another seems to be winning at the moment. When the internal combustion engine was invented the drive was to make it bigger and better; that was progress. Now progress is to reduce pollution and that’s counter intuitive to the past. Squaring that circle is at least twenty years away.

Profile photo of DerekP
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Ah, gasoline – the modern day opium of the masses?

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I drive diesel and have done so for many years, for several reasons: longevity, reliability, high mpg, cheaper to service (fewer moving parts). I’ve never bought new, why would I with the huge depreciation that happens the minute you’ve bought it? My current car is a five-year-old Volvo and I’ve no plans to change it for at least another five years when I’d expect to spend around £8,000 for another car. I’d like my next car to be a hybrid and a suitable equivalent replacement, new, would cost at least £20,000 so, if I’m to be priced off the road and offered, say, £2,000 towards a new car, where am I expected to find the other £10,000? I’ve read that fuel manufacturers could make diesel fuel ‘cleaner’ but it would be more expensive. Isn’t this the way forward? It would help all diesel vehicles, including buses, lorries, taxis, etc, and if necessary the government could do its bit in the short term by reducing the high level of taxation on fuel. As hybrid and electric technology improves people will naturally go down that route and diesel cars will eventually disappear and vehicles that have to use diesel (assuming there hasn’t been a breakthrough in the meantime) will be using ‘clean’ fuel. Yes, it’ll take time but as VynorHill says, we are where we are and that’s where we have to start from