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Diesel Disaster
Brussels Warns Britain over Smoggy Skies

The European Commission just handed the UK its “final warning” over breaches of air quality controls, though it isn’t clear whether that’s a bureaucratic escalation or an acknowledgement that Brexit is just weeks away from becoming a reality. The BBC reports:

[The European Commission] said limits had been repeatedly exceeded in 16 areas including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow…The commission said if countries did not take action within two months it could take the matter to the European Court of Justice.

Under EU law, when air pollution limits are breached member states have to implement air quality plans to bring the levels back down…Asked whether the UK would remain bound by any legal proceedings after Brexit, Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein said: “For as long as the UK is a member of the European Union, rights and obligations apply…European law applies fully.”

The optics of a final warning issued during the eleventh hour of Britain’s membership of the EU are interesting in their own right, but there’s a bigger story here. We typically think of deadly air pollution as a problem reserved for more industrial developing countries (like India and China), rather than one that the developed West still wrangles with. But the European Commission didn’t just hit the UK with a warning this week, it also cautioned Italy, Spain, Germany, and France over elevated nitrous dioxide levels.

The common thread that runs through all of those countries is easy to identify: a high reliance on diesel-powered cars and trucks. Diesel gets higher mileage than the kind of unleaded gasoline most American cars run on, and the EU has encouraged it as a fuel type in order to help meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets. But diesel also has more noxious (pun intended) tailpipe emissions—like nitrous oxides—and as a result, it’s creating clouds of smog in many of Europe’s bigger cities.

This isn’t the first time we’re hearing of this, either. The World Health Organization warned Europe over these elevated nitrous dioxide and fine particulate levels last year. Two months ago, we learned that London was a world leader in nitrous oxide levels, and that the high concentration of the gas was taking years off the lives of thousands of Londoners. The director of King’s College London’s air quality center, Gary Fuller, summed things up nicely, calling the city’s air quality “a complete policy failure,” and concluding that “no one could defend this.”

Leaving the EU might save Britain from being dragged into the European Court of Justice, but it won’t address the root of the problem.

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  • Fat_Man

    Are they trying to remind Britain of why they are quitting. I would not put too much stock in these warnings. The EPA does it all the time in their ongoing effort to destroy state and local government.

  • LarryD

    Top-down planning has Unexpected Consequences. Again.

    Diesel fuel is cheap because it’s made from the dregs of petroleum distillation. A Diesel engine is more efficient because of its very high expansion ratio and inherent lean burn. It doesn’t have to burn “diesel fuel”, but it can.

    • Jim__L

      Pardon the fact that my knowledge of diesel engines comes from my Thermo class back in college, but I thought that diesel engines were mechanically different — being a two-stroke engine that ignites the fuel simply by pressure rather than sparks.

      Can an engine like that really run anything other than diesel?

      • Fat_Man

        Two stroke vs 4 stroke does not divide ICE engine classes. There have been spark ignited gasoline burning 2 stroke engines since forever. The old (50s-60s) SAABs had them. You had to add a little motor oil to the fuel. I think lots of lawn mower type applications use them as well.

        OTOH, most diesels used by cars and trucks these days are 4 stroke. GM used to make a lot of V-N 2 stroke diesels to power buses and railroad locomotives. I don’t know if they still do that. Two stroke is used a lot in marine applications.

        What divides diesels and other engines is the method of igniting the fuel charge. Diesels rely on the compression of the air in the cylinder to heat the air and ignite the fuel. Diesels have compression ratios of 15:1 and higher. Conventional gasoline engines have lower compression ratios usually more like 10:1.

  • CapitalHawk

    I lived in London from 2009 to 2011 and the number of diesels was noticeable. Even though my apartment had two sets of windows, there was an accumulation of soot under the windows from the particulates put into the air by those diesels. I didn’t notice any kinds of impact on my breathing (in contrast to my one week in Beijing in 2005), but the soot in my apartment was noticeable.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    So I was fertilizing my lawn, you know Nitrogen and Sulfur compounds, when I thought, “wouldn’t it be great if Nitrogen and Sulfur compounds just came down with the rain”?

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