Motor industry: diesel in reverse

Diesel engines are spewing out far more harmful nitrogen oxides than originally thought

 There was too much store put in the diesel engine to help lower carbon emissions and thereby combat climate change. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

There was too much store put in the diesel engine to help lower carbon emissions and thereby combat climate change. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

 

The noxious emissions from the Volkswagen scandal have now wafted across the entire German motor industry and beyond. In hindsight, the auto sector and European authorities put too much store in the diesel engine to help lower carbon emissions and thereby combat climate change.

This week German politicians and industry bosses tried to clean up the mess. However, the promise of software fixes for older engines is regarded as too little too late. And this is not just a German problem. Diesel engines are spewing out far more harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) than was originally thought – due to failure in the testing procedures or plain cheating by car firms. This affects everyone’s air quality.

The likely outcome is a backlash against diesel. This will understandably annoy Irish motorists who were strongly encouraged to change from petrol to diesel by a tax regime introduced in 2008 by a Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition. The earnest aim was to lower CO2. No one mentioned NOx and what it does to the air we breathe. Besides, the motor industry said they would take care of that through engineering. And we trusted them to do so.

Trust is now in short supply. The test regime for cars is being overhauled, evidence that regulation was too light. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the future of the combustion engine.

October’s budget may see a rise in taxes on diesel, pushing towards parity with petrol, while other measures will have a distinctive electric buzz about them. Increasing incentives for hybrid and electric models will be good optics.But will motorists follow their lead, having been offered a false dawn with diesel?

Back in 2008 the tax changes led to a collapse in the value of petrol cars, hurting not only dealers but owners trading in their old cars. If the Government uses tax policy to change motoring habits again, it needs to be wary of the consequences, particularly for those who can’t afford to swap their ageing diesel for a brand new hybrid or electric car.

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