Diesels suffer as UK low-carbon car sales soar in 2017

New figures show that a record number of electric and hybrid cars were registered in Britain last year, as sales for diesel cars continued to decline amid taxes and pollution fears.

The low-carbon car market grew by more than one-third (34.8%) in 2017, according to trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Record-high registrations of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells cars resulted in the sector’s highest-ever annual market share of 4.7%.

But the overall new car market reportedly fell first the first time in six years, primarily due to a decline in demand for diesels. Sales for diesel cars dropped by 20% last year, and fell by almost a third in December after the Autumn Budget introduced a higher tax on new diesel cars.

Commenting on the news, environmental law firm ClientEarth’s chief executive James Thornton said: “It’s no surprise that diesel sales were down last year. Diesel vehicles are responsible for much of the illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in towns and cities across the UK.”

Dirty diesels

Diesels generally produce less CO2 than petrol cars and help manufacturers to meet emissions reduction targets. The fall in demand for diesels meant that CO2 emissions from new cars increased for the first time in 20 years, up 0.8% on 2016.

There is a widespread concern about the level of NO2 produced by diesel vehicles, which are now responsible for almost 40% of all NO2 emissions in the UK’s major cities.

Industry experts Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) suggest that new vehicle testing regimes and advances in the clean fuel vehicle markets hold the key to bringing emissions down again in the future.

Commenting on the statistics, a LowCVP spokesperson said: “In the medium to longer term, with LowCVP and stakeholder support, we expect that rapid progress in accelerating the plug-in car market combined with the introduction of new vehicle testing regimes will help to ensure that the fall in average new car CO2 emissions is resumed, alongside progress in tackling air pollution.”

The Government’s Air Quality Plan, set to come into force this year, proposes a £3bn programme to clean up dirty air around UK roads. As part of the strategy, the Government has committed to the phase-out of new car sales for petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.

Thornton attributed the fall in diesel sales to the creation of Clean Air Zones – set to be introduced in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by the end of 2019.

“Clean Air Zones, which charge the dirtiest vehicles to enter the most polluted areas, are on their way and people are increasingly aware of that,” Thornton said.

“These Clean Air Zones need to be introduced across the country as quickly as possible and at the same time the Government and the car industry, which is partly responsible for this mess, need to help people to move from dirty diesels to cleaner forms of transport.”

In response to regulation, car giants are starting to recognise the need to electrify their portfolios. In the last few months, VolvoJaguar Land Rover and Volkswagen all unveiled EV initiatives, while Ford has offered a scrappage scheme for older, more polluting vehicles.

George Ogleby

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