Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11 million cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is Boris Johnson on a crusade against the black pump? Sam Philip investigates

Boris Johnson has declared war on diesel, with the London Mayor proposing to squeeze an extra £10 from the driver of any diesel car in the Congestion Zone. Johnson's crusade against the black pump heads a bid to improve the quality of the capital's air, with campaigners claiming that some 51,000 Londoners have died prematurely of respiratory symptoms linked to air pollution since the mayor took office in 2008.

That diesel is now an environmental bad-boy might come as a surprise to the millions of Britons who have, over the last decade, converted from petrol to diesel on grounds of economy, efficiency and environmental do-goodery. In the first half of 2014, Britons bought 643,000 diesel cars, with petrol sales standing at 621,000 (alternative fuel vehicles, including hybrids and electric vehicles, registered just 23,300 sales).

That's a vast rise. At the turn of the millennium, diesels represented barely 15 per cent of the new cars sold in the UK. Diesel's spike in popularity can be laid at the door of the DVLA, which has, for the last dozen years, effectively offered tax breaks to diesel buyers in the form of Vehicle Excise Duty.

The cost of your tax disc was traditionally calculated by engine size but, since 2001, it has been pegged against a car's emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major contributor to global warming. Diesel cars cough out less CO2 per kilometre than their petrol-powered alternatives – not least because there's more energy packed into a litre of diesel than of petrol – and the policy has proved effective at reducing the CO2 footprint of Britain's car population.

The problem is that CO2 isn't the only nasty stuff to spew from the rear of runabouts. Diesel engines, despite recent improvements in filtering technology, emit higher level of nitrous oxide (NOx) and particulates, sooty matter with little impact on global warming but, potentially, a great deal of impact on the lungs of those in the local area. And it's particulates that have got up Boris's nose. He could blame the Germans. That Britain has converted so fervently to diesel can't solely be blamed on the DVLA, but also the Teutonic capacity for progress. Back in the day it was easy: if you were a farmer or trucker, you endured diesel and everyone else bought petrol. Diesels were, until recently, grumbly and slow-witted, only fit for tractors and long-distance lorries. But giant leaps in turbocharging and direct injection technology, led by Volkswagen and BMW, have made modern turbodiesels very nearly as smooth and perky as their petrol cousins. They'll even start on a cold morning without the clatter of a tool chest plunging down a flight of stairs. Which is why diesel is no longer the preserve of the farmyard. Even luxury sports car brands such as Porsche have embraced the black stuff and a diesel supercar may be imminent.

Rupert Stadler, chairman of Audi, recently hinted that the next generation of his firm's R8 – a two-seater, low-slung, wedgy sports-thing much beloved of London's banking fraternity – could be offered with diesel power, a move likely to cause Johnson a mild aneurism.

So what's the alternative? Aside from bicycles, Johnson has stuck his chips on electric vehicles (EVs), which remain firmly Congestion Charge exempt. But though it's true that EVs – which, running on battery power alone, generate no local emissions (though the power station producing the electricity is another matter) – make sense for city-dwellers, they struggle elsewhere. A diesel family hatch can manage an easy 500 miles on a tank of fuel, but even the most efficient modern EV will struggle to exceed 100 miles or so between charges, a challenge when ferrying your family to Fort William on holiday. Especially because, whereas refilling your car with diesel takes precisely the time of the average bathroom-and-Ginsters service station break, fully recharging an electric car requires at least a couple of hours of extension-cord boredom.

Alas, Knutsford services doesn't yet offer sufficient distraction to sustain humans for that length of time.

Sam Philip writes for 'BBC Top Gear Magazine'

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

    £13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

    £16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence