HL Deb 10 January 1996 vol 568 cc123-5

3.6 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to encourage the use of modified diesel fuel in order to reduce pollution of the atmosphere, especially by particulates.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, the Government recognise that cleaner fuels have a role to play in reducing air pollution. We shall be reducing the maximum permitted sulphur content of diesel fuel by 75 per cent. from 1st October 1996.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply and what he says about low sulphur fuels. In view of the recent increase in diesel road vehicles and the estimate that 80 per cent. of exhaust particulates now are emitted by diesels, will the Government do all they can to encourage the use of low sulphur fuel, bearing in mind the rapid success and widespread adoption of unleaded petrol, assisted in that case by a tax differential?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords. Low sulphur fuels have a significant role to play in the process of reducing emissions of particulates. However, it must be recognised that there are alternatives, sometimes involving additives to diesel fuel, which have a similar effect. We are also taking action on a number of other fronts to achieve the aim, addressing new vehicle standards and enforcement of existing standards and reducing the amount of sulphur permitted in diesel fuel.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, would it be possible to secure a substantial increase in low pollutant diesels by reducing the tax on such fuels, thus making them more attractive to purchasers than the ordinary polluting diesel?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is certainly one option, and one we shall keep under review. As I said, there are a number of other approaches to the problem which we are pursuing. Indeed, there are other fuels, including those using additives, which produce the same result and do not have the cost premium of low sulphur diesel.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, what action are the Government taking to prevent diesel-fuelled lorries producing unnecessary pollution because their engines are not properly maintained? Is it true that the fitting of filters to remove particulates from diesel-engined vehicles is easier than the fitting of catalytic converters for other fuels?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, to answer my noble friend's first point, there is a two-strand approach to the problem. One is the regular test which all HGVs must undertake. There are stringent rules on emissions and levels of particulates that can be emitted by the engine. We are also pursuing an intensive programme of roadside checks. On the question of particulate filters, it is true that such filters can be put in place. Again, they have a significant role to play in reducing the emission of particulates but there is still a great deal of development work to be done on their use.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is there any other particulate other than diesel or sulphur emission? What is it all about?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, without wishing to state the obvious, a particulate is a particle. It is a small piece of matter that is emitted by the process of fossil fuel combustion. In vehicles they are mainly composed of molecules of carbon on to which molecules of partly burned fuel and sulphates are readily attached. Sulphur, which we have discussed, is part of the problem but it is not the whole problem.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, this is an important Question, particularly for city centres which receive the blast of diesel fumes. Unless I have wrongly read the report of the urban air review group, domestic pollution is probably greater than vehicle pollution with something like I per cent. arising from diesel cars, 9 per cent. from petrol and light goods vehicles, 1 per cent. from heavy goods vehicles and 47 per cent. from domestic fuel. Are we getting things out of balance? Can the Government give a simple explanation as to whether pollution from diesel vehicles is all that much worse than from a diesel central heating plant?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my information is that the emission of particulates from road vehicles of all types accounts for some 26 per cent. of the total emission of particulates into the atmosphere of this country. It is extremely important that we take action on all fronts. The road vehicles category is clearly important. We can make progress; it is important that we concentrate our efforts on that.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the noble Viscount take action to provide information about the issue to the country in general? Originally we were told that diesel was environmentally friendly. Some of us have now experienced—I speak as one who has—considerable adverse affects from being exposed to diesel. I do not believe that the public are sufficiently aware of the dangers involved.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. Assessing whether there is advantage in having petrol or diesel engined vehicles is a very complex issue. One puts out more emissions of one type and the other of another type. Clearly, diesel vehicles offer better fuel economy and they have an important advantage in terms of the total quantity of pollutants that they emit. However, they have a significant difficulty with the high level of particulate emissions.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware of the experiments in Reading regarding alternative fuels which have proved very successful? If so, will he take heed of the plea to reduce the tax on those alternative fuels which would be very much in favour of the environment? Are the Government also examining ways and means of bringing back the trolley bus to our streets? It is the cleanest, best and most efficient form of public transport that we have ever invented.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, on the latter question, a considerable number of public transport initiatives are taking place using innovative means. I am not aware of the specific tests in Reading to which the noble Lord referred. However, I can tell the noble Lord that the duty on road fuel gases—that is, compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas—was frozen in two 1994 Budgets and reduced by 15 per cent. in the 1995 Budget. The thrust of his question is the duty imposed on alternative fuels. I hope that that answers it.