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Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil and contested Aberdeen North at the 2015 general election.

Last week saw the introduction of the new T-Charge (or Toxicity Charge) adding a further £10 a day to the existing £11.50 Congestion Charge for the ‘privilege’ of driving in central London. Urban pollution isn’t an issue to be disregarded – even if some of the statistics bandied about might be contentious. I was, however, left wondering if penalising a handful of pre-2006 vehicles (often owned by those on low incomes) was the optimum way of going about things. And wary of getting all London-centric, I also reflected on some of the wider implications, both environmental and political.

Before going any further, allow me to declare a personal interest. (Or perhaps now, lack of). Until recently, I’d always sought out highly-depreciated but well-maintained big saloons: prestige motoring on a sensible budget. Whilst fuel bills and spares were rarely low, I could never rationalise committing to monthly payments simply to get better economy from a newer diesel. (By the way, remember politicians pushing these? The thick soot that accumulates daily on my London windowsill suggests they didn’t quite save the environment going down the diesel route. Or address our dependence on imported fossil fuels.)

But the economics have been shifting lately. New cars have never been cheaper for starters. And the impending Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will ultimately engulf my area. So I’m now in what I hope will prove an economical and reliable new petrol-electric hybrid. Not quite the one you might be imagining, though: everyone from Uber drivers to Hollywood celebs wants a Prius. No bargains were to be had.

I’m not here to preach unto the ConservativeHome congregation with all the zeal of a reformed sinner, so I’ll just leave it as this: embracing economy wasn’t a hardship. Urban driving especially is now significantly less stressful, since no combustion engine can beat the smoothness of an electric drive. And thanks to ‘pure’ electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), soon with self-driving, things will get better still.

So policy-makers and environmentalists might well cite me as a successful case study: ‘nudged’ out of a gas-guzzler and now contentedly in a hybrid. But, what was the point, again: how successful was all this in tacking pollution?

The emissions from my 2002 saloon were already pretty clean: better than from many newer diesels, I’d wager. Yet it was fast becoming a motoring pariah leading to greater emissions when replaced early and ultimately scrapped. Meanwhile my hybrid (impressive as it is) includes battery metals which require intensive extraction and processing. And my route to lower emissions is only open to folks with the funds for a new car. Those unable to change and with no option other than to drive find themselves clobbered. (But their emissions don’t decrease.)

So, whilst the T-Charge should help cut urban emissions (a bit), there are probably more effective targets for politicians. Out and about with the Hampstead & Kilburn Conservatives, I spotted plenty of EVs happily plugged in on extensive driveways. But for those reliant on street parking, things get trickier. In Camden, there remains only a handful of charging points despite a 75 per cent government grant available to councils.

Too many of us going electric too quickly risks grid chaos, however. Hence the earlier article of mine on what hydrogen might offer especially if generated from surplus renewable electricity. Whilst re-fuelling infrastructure remains limited, encouraging early switchover of buses, taxis and delivery vans (all refuel-able at depots) could tackle urban pollution more effectively than any punitive charges. And speaking of taxis, whilst its business practices undoubtedly merit scrutiny, the prospect of London losing Uber’s vast Prius fleet perhaps doesn’t signal fully joined-up thinking.

On a wider political perspective, the proliferation of localised emissions regulations exemplifies the outcome of widespread devolution. Whilst metropolitan mayors (in London and also Paris) can now take an important issue into their own hands, pollution risks becoming a political football, leading to sub-optimal outcomes. Especially when the local and central government are on opposite sides. The Scottish Government seeks to bring forward the UK’s 2040 ban (on conventional petrol and diesels) by eight years although it’s not fully clear how funding and enforcement might materialise.

Meanwhile, the experience from smaller towns demonstrates the outcome of attempts to manage traffic: the balance between leaving a centre to snarl up versus strangling local businesses via excessive restrictions is sometimes a tricky one. Out of town shopping and the internet have left town centres more vulnerable than ever before.

I could add at this point that I was initially attracted by a manufacturer scrappage scheme which, whilst generous, didn’t quite sway me. (Turned out I could negotiate better terms from a large organisation – but only if prepared to walk away without a deal.) There are serious issues facing the EU, however. Germany’s mighty car industry bet heavily on diesel and now finds itself mired in scandal. In the meantime, the Japanese are 20 years ahead in hybrids and are now pioneeing hydrogen FCVs. And the Americans, from vast GM to upstarts Tesla, are serious about EVs. Whatever else unfolds in the coming years, we need to look near and far for learnings and solutions to our emissions challenges.

34 comments for: Sanjoy Sen: Nudged out of a gas-guzzler, I’m an environmentalist’s dream. But how much difference does switching to hybrids make?

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