Recent action by Kensington and Chelsea Council to impose a surcharge on parking permits for diesel cars reflects growing concern that diesel is not the solution many people once thought it was.

A DEFRA report, published not long ago, noted that diesel vehicles still have similar emission rates to those of 15 years ago, and have a more serious impact on human health than their petrol rivals.

Many respiratory diseases, such as asthma, seem to have a stronger link to diesel than to petrol cars, because disel emissions are far higher in ‘soot’ content, which has more of an impact on human health when breathed, than Carbon DiOxide.

However, there are also concerns regarding the impact of diesel on global warming also. A 2002 study from Stanford University’s Professor Mark Jacobson, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, argued that the soot emissions from diesel were in fact more harmful in terms of heating the earth quickly. The soot warms the air more than CO2, and stays in the atmosphere for much less time. Thus reducing diesel emissions will have a bigger and more noticeable short-term impact than reducing CO2 emissions. Jacobson noted at the time of his study that the European Union countries were almost entirely promoting diesel in terms of their taxation regimes as opposed to petrol (Britain was the notable exception).

Fast-forward to 2011, and it appears that little has changed. The European Commission’s Environmental Directorate General, in seeking to reduce the EU’s carbon emissions, proposed in 2007 to target cars via taxation according to their CO2 emissions, which would, again, defacto, promote diesel. Whilst the EU is also seeking to reduce the sulphur content of diesel, and increase the ethanol ‘bio-fuel’ content, policy in this area is compromised by the EU’s lack of power, lack of consensus and lack of vision.

The Commission has a programme called “Intelligent Energy – Europe”, which promotes energy saving research into new technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cell development and carbon capture innovations. The EU is also focusing on improving infrastructures links to reduce wasteful traffic jams, though this is one of the few examples of the Commission recognising the impact of fumes on human health. The Commission’s Health Directorate General appears to have no references to how fumes damage the health of the citizens of Europe.

It is as ever the private sector which is leading the way in terms of fruitful investment and innovation. Companies like Cella Energy, in Oxfordshire, are pioneering the development of hydrogen powered cars and alternatives to fossil fuels. And the competitive forces of competition in Formula One motor racing has produced kinetic energy recovery systems, which harvest the vast amounts of energy produced under braking and then uses it later to help power the vehicle. These developments are notable for the absence of European Union funding or absence of direct European Commission involvement, calling into question the value of the EUs investments and continued use of taxpayers money in this area, and the ability of the state to adapt and innovate as the private sector does.