NZ’s love of diesels kills hundreds a year

Pollution from cars kills more than 256 people a year but the Government has yet to move on shifting dirty diesel vehicles off the roads — in fact, its policies are making the problem worse. 

Documents released under the Official Information Act show the Government is concerned about the level of toxic air pollution and the effects on people's health. This is especially true in Auckland where cars account for more than half the human emissions of PM10, a particle particularly harmful to health. 

The documents refer to a 2012 study which estimated the 256 premature deaths a year due to air pollution from motor vehicle emissions. 

The Ministry of Transport pointed the finger firmly at diiesels. Countries like France are acting fast to move diesel cars off the road altogether, but here old and dirty diesel vehicles are tolerated. 

The oldest and dirtiest are even exempt from our emissions standards. 

Emissions from light diesel vehicles are about 60 percent higher than from petrol ones, because of their combustion process using more excess air and burning hotter than petrol engines. 

Diesels don’t just produce a lot more pollution than petrol vehicles, the pollution they create is also particularly harmful. Diesels produce ultra fine particles measuring less than 0.1 microns across. 

Diesels are the problem… so why do we import so many? 

Worse still, while average emissions from light petrol vehicles have been declining steadily as emissions standards have improved, emissions from diesel vehicles have been getting worse. 

According to the Ministry of Transport 18 percent of cars are now diesel, up from 12 percent in 2000. The Ministry says there is a risk pollution could increase in Auckland “given the continued popularity of diesel vehicles”.

The problem isn’t just the number of diesel vehicles on the road either. Diesel engines in New Zealand have not seen the same improvements in emissions standards as those powered by petrol.

Monitoring conducted across Auckland between 2003 and 2015 found average emissions from the light diesel fleet increased between 2009 and 2015 and average emissions from the heavy vehicle fleet remained stable. This contrasts with emissions from the light petrol fleet, which have steadily declined.

Overall, from 2006 to 2013 emissions of PM10 have declined in Auckland. However a report released on Tuesday by the Auckland Council found pollution on Queen Street had begun to worsen again.  

Climate change — it could make matters worse 

The report cautions that policies to shift the national fleet to low-CO2 emissions vehicles - a target adopted by this coalition government - could make matters worse.

In Europe, climate policies encouraged motorists to ditch petrol vehicles that emit high levels of CO2 for low-CO2 diesels. While this reduced CO2 emissions, it led to catastrophic levels of air pollution from diesel engines. 

In some European countries, diesel vehicles comprise more than 50 percent of the national fleet. 

In France, nearly 70 percent of cars are powered by diesel, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat. Toxic air pollution across the country has led to roughly 48,000 deaths a year, according to its national health service.

The country has responded quickly. Paris has banned all conventional cars built before 1997 from entering the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays and all diesel cars registered before 2001 have been banned from the city.

Next year the restrictions will be widened to include pre-2005 diesels, with a view to outlawing all diesel vehicles by 2024.

While these old diesels are considered too dirty and dangerous for the streets of Paris, they’re imported by the thousand to New Zealand under a loophole which means some of the oldest, dirtiest diesels are exempt from emissions standards. 

New Zealand, the importer of last resort

Cars over 20 years old are not required to meet minimum emissions standards. 

The loophole was designed for classic cars to be imported by collectors, but an unintended consequence has been a flood of old diesel vehicles. 

A report conducted by economic consultancy BERL for the MTA found 4,083 cars built between 1992 and 1997 were imported last year — the kind that would be banned from driving in Paris. Over half of these cars were diesels. 

By comparison, just 2,922 pure electric vehicles were imported last year. 

And it’s not just old cars that are the problem. 

Sales of large vehicles have spiked in recent years. These cars are often diesel powered.

Last year New Zealanders bought nearly 37,000 double-cab utes, almost all of which were diesel burning. 

Government policy doesn’t help. Utes are categorised as a commercial vehicle, meaning buyers don’t have to pay fringe benefits tax. 

Tests or ban? 

One way to improve air quality would be to enforce minimum emissions standards across all vehicles through regular testing, called in-service emissions testing. 

But this is expensive. 

Greig Epps from the MTA told Newsroom testing stations can cost $5000-$10,000. It was also difficult and time consuming to run a fair emissions test. It raises further questions about how a standard emissions test would work. The Government would have to decide whether to test cars idling, or on the open road. Each option would add time and money to the already expensive Warrant of Fitness process. 

The last Labour Government rejected in-service vehicle emissions testing in 2005 after a Ministry of Transport study found tests were ineffective at identifying high on-road emitting vehicles. A similar study in Australia reached the same conclusion. 

Another solution is a vehicle scrapping scheme, in which owners of poor-quality vehicles are given money by the Government to scrap their vehicles. The ministry reported a trial scheme conducted in Auckland in 2007 was successful, but subsequent trials in Wellington and Christchurch failed to generate much traction.

The Government could look at other areas where diesel fuel is used.

The Ministry of Transport estimates 40 percent of diesel consumption is from engines whose emissions are completely unregulated, like fishing boats, construction and agricultural equipment. These are not subject to emissions standards.  

Epps believes a good place to start would be looking at the kinds of vehicles that being imported, particularly under the exemption for cars more than 20 years old. 

“Let’s nip some of this stuff in the bud and ask, ‘why are we importing some of these cars to begin with?” Epps said.

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