Slugger has had a number of excellent articles this year on transport especially in Belfast with the new bus lanes etc. Largely un-noticed, however, has been one seemingly unimportant event which may have significant relevance for many of Northern Ireland’s drivers. Clearly the recent reduction in the price of fuel is welcomed by many / most. However, despite the fall in price it must be remembered that most of the cost of fuel is tax and that tax might be in danger of rising in a fashion that could hurt Northern Ireland’s drivers more than most.
In July Boris Johnson proposed increasing the congestion charge on diesel cars, a move lauded by environmental campaigners.
There has been considerable debate in environmental circles regarding diesel. Some years ago it was proposed as a more environmentally friendly option than petrol as it produces 20% less CO2. This is because diesel has greater energy density than petrol.
Unfortunately whilst carbon dioxide is harmless at a local level, diesel also produces greater amounts of other pollutants especially particulates and nitric oxides. It was hoped that modern filtering systems would prevent this problem but that has been less effective than hoped. The filters often get blocked and work less well when the engine is older, less well maintained, cold or running at low revs (as often happens in cities). As such diesel cars especially in towns and cities may be more polluting than petrol cars. This has led a number of environmental campaigners and the Green Party to call for an increase in taxes on diesel vehicles. These sorts of calls could be used as justification for an environmentally friendly stealth tax for mainstream politicians.
So why the particular relevance of this to Northern Ireland? Belfast is reported to have reasonably good air quality levels but if there was a move to increase taxes on diesel vehicles it would have a disproportionate effect in Northern Ireland as there are slightly more diesel than petrol cars in Northern Ireland (it is approximately 2:1 in favour of petrol in the rest of the UK).
This is also an interesting example of lack of foresight in environmental policy. So fixated on carbon emissions have policy makers been in the past that they promoted diesel cars which produce a little bit less carbon dioxide but more local pollution than petrol cars. Furthermore people having bought supposedly more economical and environmentally friendly diesel cars may now be taxed for having more polluting vehicles.
Hybrid cars may offer a solution but are currently expensive and less efficient than their official figures suggest. Electric cars are better but there are relatively few currently on NI’s roads (77 according to the DRD figures) and a number of the charging points have never been used; furthermore the longevity both in range and long term durability of the battery is uncertain. The durability problem is currently dealt with by leasing the battery from the manufacturer but how that will work in the non franchised second hand market years later is unclear.
Personally I always have always preferred petrol cars especially when they have the engine in the correct place behind the back seat passengers: well I can always buy a new Renault Twingo (bizarre end understandable only to the car interested cognoscenti).