Educating the public on vehicle emissions and pollution: can Government help through a change in the way it collects tax on vehicles?

Prof. Adrian Muscat

My last blog post was on airborne pollution and how it discourages green and healthy modes of transport, otherwise known as walking and cycling. The solution discussed was the adoption of electric cars. This post is yet another one related to pollution.

It is today an undisputed fact that both long term and short term exposure to air pollutants has an adverse effect on health, manifesting itself in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancers (see WHO reports). To reduce the risk we need to understand the sources of pollution and how to minimize it. Since the general public owns and operates private vehicles and/or makes use of transport services it is imperative that everybody understands the implications of pollution and how to keep it in check.

European Union wide standards and regulations on vehicle emissions have been in force since 1992. In simple terms these regulations set limits on emissions from the various engine types (petrol or diesel) and vehicle types and are known as EURO 1, 2, up to 6. The higher the number the cleaner is the vehicle. The most quoted pollutants are particulate matter (PM) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx). For example an old diesel engine emits approximately ten times more NOx compared to a EURO 6 diesel vehicle. As the EU wide regulations came into force over the past years, PM and NOx levels went down, however NOx has not been reduced as much as predicted. Dieselgate exposed this slow down even further.

In Malta we have reason to worry because we’ve got an old fleet, a large number of old diesel engines and more than half the fleet is Euro 3 or less, especially in the less affluent areas. In contrast, buses used in public transport are Euro 5 or 6. The foul air is easily noticeable for people who visit us and for those of us who spend time abroad in the more advanced democracies.

Over the years, municipal policy makers across the EU introduced measures to reduce pollution, such as congestion charging and higher taxes for old vehicles. However, over time it became more clear that increasing taxation does not work well, i.e it does little in decreasing pollution. The obvious solution is to ban or restrict vehicle access. The old system banned even/odd numbered vehicles on alternate days. New systems are based on the emissions rating of a vehicle. So many European cities are now considering banning vehicles that do not satisfy a minimum Euro regulation requirement. So for example allowing Euro 5 vehicles or better entry into low emission zones or Euro 6 for ultra low emission zones. Some jurisdictions are also considering a complete ban on diesel, and others are charging more for parking diesel vehicles, but the latter is less effective and is perceived as added taxation that does not result in lower emissions. Banning vehicles however requires an increase in the provision of public transport. Some cities offered free public transport or transport vouchers for leaving your car at home. However these systems are expensive and are often discontinued.

Given our extraordinary high car ownership we will find it hard to do away with our car and those on lower income will not be able to replace an old car with a Euro 6 vehicle. However, we are not the only ones as these are the same arguments brought forward in major cities. The government can help by removing the taxation on new vehicles, which is very high, and replace it with parking charges, per use taxation, which reflects the use of transport resources and also pollution emissions. In other words you are not taxed for buying a car and leaving it at home. We must also keep in perspective the problem of network congestion, i.e. banning cars eases congestion.

In summary, whatever we decide to do, we still have to face the fact that car use goes down in favour of better air quality and easing of congestion. So we better think of a decrease in car ownership as a desirable goal rather than a negative outcome, and we can reach this state by providing better public transport and through education.

We need to spend time in explaining to the public why we need to modernise our vehicle fleet. This can’t happen overnight. People have to be progressively introduced to this idea of trading car ownership for better air quality. Today we enjoy smoke free offices, restaurants and schools and do not look back.