If we wait for Michael Gove to deal with air pollution we may well be dead

by georgehep

I have never been too concerned about longevity. But I now want to hang around until 2040 and live longer than the internal combustion engine. My life has evolved around the car. I can still recite my number plates on 16 cars in 46 years and so the demise of the motor car will be a poignant moment.

Michael Gove announced that petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 23 years time when I will be ninety. It seems a long time away and Norway, which is such a sensible place, will ban gas guzzlers in 2025. I am curious to know how it will play out.

There are signs that the changeover will happen more quickly. Volvo has announced it will stop building conventional cars in 2019.  Tesla has half a million orders for its new economy model. The value of traditional cars will fall and we will shortly stop buying them. Petrol stations are already closing at the rate of 100 a year and will be consigned to Beamish.

The car of the future will probably also be driverless and configured in a completely different way. I imagine getting in my car in the evening and sleeping all the way to London. We are more likely to rent cars than own them and the most imaginative futurists envisage cars arriving at our door when we need them and going where we want to go without anyone giving the orders.

The problems  of electric technology  can be overcome  if  the engineers put their mind to it.  The price of electric cars will come down and no one doubts they are quieter, cheaper to run and last longer.  At present only 1 in 700 cars on the road are electric but expect that  to change rapidly soon.

There is a colossal  threat to the car industry but there is an opportunity too, if the government gets behind battery technology and skews transport policy. The German government, as ever much smarter, knows diesel is dead. They held a summit with car manufacturers last week to plan the transition.

There is a danger that we will run out of electricity. Electric cars will consume more power by 2030 than will be generated by Hinckley Point but solar panels and overnight charging may be the answer. Street lights can be adapted as charging points.

Government revenue for petrol duty will plummet as 67% of every litre from the pump goes straight to the Exchequer.  Fuel and excise duty could be replaced  with an annual charge for the number of miles driven weighted by the toxicity of the vehicle as proposed by Gergely Raccuja, a young post graduate student who won the Wolfson Prize for his scheme  in July. Like all good ideas, it is deceptively simple.

But hang on a moment, before I get carried away. Michael Gove grabbed the headlines with an announcement about electric cars when he was supposed to be outlining the government’s plan for tackling air pollution. This is the government’s third attempt to bring forward measures to satisfy European regulation. Client Earth calls it a “shabby rewrite of previous draft plans.. lacking in urgency” to  tackle  a public health emergency  that is killing 40,000  people a year. Air pollution is a bigger killer than alcohol or obesity according to Friends of the Earth. They call for a brand new Clean Air Act.

Electric cars do not get a clean bill of health either as they still emit particulates that are every bit as damaging as the damned diesel. The government plans to retro fit buses and taxis to control their emissions but it fights shy of charging motorists with diesel cars to enter city centres or introducing a scrappage scheme for the dirtiest cars. Instead, it has got itself in a tangle over a minor proposal  to remove sleeping policeman  and reduce air pollution  which has infuriated the road safety lobby. It should not come down to bumps in the road.

The trouble is that cowardly politicians do not want to antagonise motorists or offend the powerful automobile industry by bringing in measures with any bite. Neither will they make any attempt to control the growing number of cars on the road or put money into more efficient and healthy alternatives.

My friends in London rarely get their car out for urban journeys because the roads are so congested. It is quicker and healthier to cycle, take a bus or walk down the road to the train station.  According to London’s traffic expert David Kelly, the only real answer is fewer cars in cities.

We all travel more. It is tempting to load up the car and get away for the weekend even if the journey down the A1 is slower and more frustrating than ever.  We all expect white vans to deliver our consumer goods overnight even when we don’t need them in a hurry.  We are obsessed with getting there quickly and neglect the beauty of staying at home.

Yes, bring on electric vehicles and driverless cars as soon as possible but don’t be deluded into believing that the car of the future is the answer to a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle and do not let Michael Gove kid you that we can wait until 2040 to control air pollution as by that time a good many of us will be dead.

published in Newcastle Journal 8th August 2017