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The BBC's Denise Mahoney
"They are promising to ensure the row over fuel does not fizzle out"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 15 August, 2000, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK
Motor industry slams diesel policy
Traffic jam
Diesel: unfairly targeted or failed solution?
Motor manufacturers have called on the UK government to cut taxes on diesel, saying it is a clean and efficient fuel with an unfairly blackened reputation.

Environmental pressure groups reacted with scepticism, saying there was no justification for the claims.

Christopher Macgowan, president of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, which represents the industry in the UK, said diesel was "a credible alternative to petrol" but users were being discriminated against with high taxes and a planned increase in vehicle excise duty.

"We firmly believe consumers should be given a fair and equal choice over what car they can buy, not taxed out of purchasing a diesel," he said.

Diesel cost rise

The cost of a litre of diesel in the UK had risen to more than 83p in late July against the equivalent of about 50p a litre in most of Europe, the SMMT said.

Diesel does not cause the health horror stories we have all heard about

Christopher Macgowan, SMMT
Next year, excise duty would also be increased for diesel cars and drivers of diesel company cars would be penalised, Mr Macgowan said.

He said sales of diesel cars were rising substantially in Europe while in the UK they were falling.

In 1999, more than 33% of new cars registered in Europe were diesel compared with 14% in the UK.

This compared with 19% and 18% respectively in 1993.

Dirty diesel assumption

Mr Macgowan said the government incorrectly assumed that diesel was a dirty fuel.

"It does not cause the health horror stories we have all heard about," he said.

Dr Michael Spallek, managing director of occupational and environmental health at Volkswagen commercial vehicles said the health risks of using diesel were unproven.

The cost of diesel in late July (pence per litre)
UK 83.2
Italy 56.3
France 52.3
Spain 43.8
Germany 37.4
US 27.3

He said research on rats showed any increased risk of cancer from diesel emissions was similar to the risk posed by passive smoking and was very low compared with active smoking.

Among the benefits of diesel are the low levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

The government says it wants to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010.

But Mr Spallek said the government could not meet this target without more diesel vehicles replacing petrol-powered ones.

Failed solution

Environmental groups said diesel was a failed solution to the search for cleaner fuels.

Roger Higman, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said diesel emissions were the principal cause of air quality problems in British cities.

Although lorries and buses were the main culprits, the contribution of diesel cars was not insignificant, he said.

Any increase in diesel use will erode gains in air quality

Roger Higman, Friends of the Earth
"Diesel engines produce more nitrogen oxides and more particulates than petrol engines," he said.

"Any increase in diesel use is likely to erode the gains in air quality we have seen from [using] the latest catalytic converters [in petrol-powered vehicles]."

It would also probably prevent the government from reaching its target for reducing nitrogen oxide levels, he said.

Alternative fuels

Mr Higman said motor companies were persisting with marketing diesel technology because of the huge investments they had made.

But he said the benefits of greater fuel efficiency and lesser toxic effects would only come from alternative fuels.

Technology has been developed for vehicles run on liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) as well as for various petrol-electric hybrids.

Infrastructure shortage

But these vehicles were unlikely to become widely available in the near future due to a lack of infrastructure at filling stations.

In the long term, cars run by fuel cell technology - which generates power by chemical reaction rather than combustion - may become a viable alternative to petrol and diesel.

Until then, say environmentalists, green consumers would do much better choosing a small car than attempting to weigh up the relative merits of petrol and diesel and opting for a larger one.

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See also:

04 Aug 00 | Business
July car sales decline
13 Jul 00 | Business
Car price gap growing
07 May 00 | Business
Car firms face bleak future
12 May 00 | Business
Analysis: Europe's car industry
20 Jul 00 | Business
Taking the green route
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