Opinion Articles

Car scrapping scheme could learn from green victories of the past

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There is nothing green about the design of the recently launched UK vehicle scrappage incentive, which is a shame since recent history teaches us that rapid, real environmental improvement can occur when policy is crafted to change consumer behaviour. The transformation in residential heating that took place during the two decades after the 1956 Clean Air Act is an excellent example. Well past the end of the Second World War coal remained the dominant fuel source in Britain's homes, despite decades of campaigning by 'smoke abatement societies'. Coal smoke hung over Britain's towns and cities, blocking out the sun to such an extent that it contributed to vitamin D deficiency in swathes of the population. Worse, coal pollutants in the air quietly brought forward the respiratory-related deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By the 1920s and 1930s it was obvious that the chief culprit in Britain's air pollution crisis was no longer industrial smokestacks - measures had begun to be taken to reduce their impact on local air quality - it was the millions of belching, open coal fires used daily by households that were the problem. Yet national and local leaders did nothing. The public loved its highly polluting, inefficient, yet cheery coal fires and politicians were convinced it was impossible to wean voters off them.

Mid-twentieth century Britain's determination to hold onto health-damaging coal fires is similar to contemporary Britain's weakness for high-emission, petrol-guzzling cars. Why drive a 1.6 litre engine estate when you can drive a 4 litre tank-like contraption so inefficient in its use of fuel and so extravagant in its emission of climate-changing and health-damaging pollutants that it ought to make all the engineers in the land cry into their beer?

So weak are the green credentials of the vehicle scrappage programme that the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has not dared to promote it as an environmentally-sound scheme, speaking instead of encouraging "consumers to invest in new, safer and potentially more environmentally friendly models".

Yet the government has not stopped the automotive industry from selling the scrappage incentive as green. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) describes how the industry has "slashed" the emissions of new cars recently, thereby claiming that people trading in old bangers for new cars and vans, and gaining a £2,000 discount in the process, will be driving away a much greener vehicle. This is hyberbole - and it's dishonest. The last two decades have seen car makers sign up to and then fail to meet a series of modest, voluntary targets aimed at reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of new cars.

Yes, new cars emit slightly less CO2 than they did a decade ago; according to SMMT CO2 emissions have been cut by 16%. This is incrementalism, not innovation. Had car makers honoured the EU targets they agreed to in the late 1990s, they would have cut CO2 emissions by a slightly more impressive 25%. Frustrated by the industry's capacity to ignore these targets, last year European governments imposed legally-binding CO2 reductions for 2015.

Until recession reared its head car usage in the UK had increased inexorably for decades and in recent years many motorists fell in love with emissions-heavy 4x4s. Every time a motorist 'trades up' to a car with a bigger engine size minor improvements in the average emissions of the model he used to drive (or the model he is buying) become irrelevant. The real picture in Britain is one of more vehicle pollution, not less.

The UK vehicle scrappage incentive is a missed opportunity to kickstart a desperately-needed shift in the type of vehicles driven by British motorists. It could have restricted participants to buying cars with engines 1.3 litres in size or smaller, perhaps with a number of small estate cars with engines up to 1.6 litres for families? Such a scheme would have delivered two important environmental benefits.

If enough older cars were traded in for the Ford Fiestas, Nissan Micras and Vauxhall Corsas of this world we could achieve a small but statistically significant reduction in the UK's transport-related carbon emissions. Cutting transport emissions is the holy grail of climate policy - it's been talked about for years and we desperately need ways to achieve it. We cannot wait for a full range of electric cars to be on car showroom forecourts before we begin the process. If the UK is to meet its new, legally-binding goal of reducing carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 we need to set out on what will inevitably be a multi-stage process of weaning motorists off high-emission vehicles - just like British households were weaned off grossly inefficient, highly-polluting, open coal fires.

It's worth remembering that when the switch to oil and gas-fired heating systems finally occurred in the 1960s and 1970s it was reasonably speedy and remarkably popular. The feared public backlash did not occur. As Dr Stephen Mosley of Leeds Metropolitan University has documented, the take-up of cleaner fuel meant sunlight penetrated urban streets more regularly and powerfully than it had for at least a century and people could wear light-coloured clothing again without fear of black smuts attaching themselves to fabric within minutes.

A shift to smaller, cleaner cars would also cut the number of people in this country who die early thanks to poor air quality. These are not just respiratory-related deaths, such as asthma attacks, but also include many heart attacks brought on by inhalation of vehicle emissions. An expert committee that advises the Department for Health has estimated there are between 12,000 and 24,000 early deaths a year in the UK thanks to vehicle emissions, and new research reviewed recently by the same committee suggests this is likely to be a conservative estimate.

The vehicle scrappage incentive could have been seized on as an opportunity to replicate the success of the post-war shift from coal to gas-fired residential heating. Instead, it's a sop to a reactionary car industry that has done nothing to help British motorists to make greener choices.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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