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Toxic Tailpipes
Green Policy Pollutes London's Air

London has dangerously high levels of the noxious pollutant nitrogen dioxide in its air, even higher than the notoriously smoggy Beijing. Surprisingly, the lion’s share of the blame for these rising levels can be placed not on old clunkers but on fleets of new cars that run on diesel.

Diesel gets better mileage than gasoline, which has led countries across Europe to promote diesel-fueled cars as a way to meet lower EU-wide CO2 requirements. That may have helped reduce that particular greenhouse gas, but has also worsened air pollution in cities like London. Bloomberg reports:

“Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.”

Tiny particles called PM2.5s probably killed 3,389 people in London in 2010, the government agency Public Health England said in April. Like nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, they come from diesel combustion. Because the pollutants are found together, it’s hard to identify deaths attributable only to NO2, said Jeremy Langrish, a clinical lecturer in cardiology at the University of Edinburgh.

This is a thorny issue, and there are many trade-offs to mull over in crafting these kinds of policies. Ideally, every driver would drive electric, emission-free cars powered by consistent renewable energy, but we don’t live in that world. Electric car technology is getting better (Elon Musk’s work with Tesla has been remarkable), but for now that green dream remains a fantasy.

In the meantime, there is something we can do that doesn’t bring the downsides we’ve seen with Europe’s so-called “dieselization,” and it’s already happening in America: drive less. To that end, promoting telework as a way to cut down on regular commuting could go a long way toward cutting both greenhouse gas emissions and localized air pollution.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again. You might have noted that this problem is not unique to London — well over half the passenger vehicles sold in Europe (55% in 2012) are diesel, and every major city probably has the problem. It’s also noteworthy that, unlike the diesel pollutants, atmospheric CO2 is not a health threat.

  • CaliforniaStark

    There is a difference between moving information by telework and moving freight. You cannot move cargo by computer, or download foodstuffs, household goods, appliances, etc. An increase in telework will have a relatively minor impact on the need to maintain a sizeable truck fleet to move consumer goods.

    The logical solution for London to have avoided the NO2 increase would have been to convert its truck fleet to run on natural gas. It generally emits at least 50% less NO2; 95% less particulate matter; as well as 20%-30% less CO2, than other fossil-based motor fuels. Unfortunately, it appears London began its diesel truck conversations prior to the rise in natural gas production because of fracking.

    There is a short-term greenhouse gas emission rise from methane, but it only last about 12 years; compare it with NO2, which lasts in the 200-year range in the atmosphere. Recent studies have indicated the amount of methane in the atmosphere has actually declined since 1990.

  • Rick Johnson

    What kind of ‘ideal’ world are you seeking?

    You say that ‘ideally, every driver should drive electric, emission-free cars powered by consistent renewable energy’. That would require a highly interventionist government that dictated or subsidised the use of these cars. That does not sound like an ideal kind of government.

    Ideally, every driver could drive the kind of car that best suits their needs that someone is prepared to make for them. That sounds like a better ideal kind of government.

    • bigfire

      In an ideal world, unicorn powered environmental friendly 110% totally recycle vehicle will magically appear and transport anything and everything to and from places. At least that the gist of what the Religion of Gaia is selling. They are against anything that works, pinning their effort on the Unicorn Powered thingie.

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