Exhaust Emission Control

– in the House of Commons at 10:35 pm on 20th January 1988.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]]

Photo of Mr Graham Bright Mr Graham Bright , Luton South 10:45 pm, 20th January 1988

The impact of the motor car on our lives is obvious to us all. It is an essential means of transport for business and leisure activities for the majority of the population. Indeed, no modern economy could survive or prosper without it. The growing number of vehicles on our roads has created a series of problems — congestion, inadequate traffic-carrying capacity and a shortage of parking spaces in our towns and cities. We are all familiar with those problems.

The Government and local authorities rightly give high priority to the task of tackling those problems. However, there is a second concern — less obvious but equally serious. We have become much more conscious of the effects of vehicle exhaust on the atmosphere. That was one of the reasons for our welcome decision to move from the use of leaded to the use of unleaded petrol. But car engines are also the source of a substantial proportion of the carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and unburnt hydrocarbons being pumped into the air every single day.

I do not pretend to be a medical expert, but I know that the harmful effects of the emissions are widely accepted. More than 90 per cent. of the carbon monoxide detected in cities in the United States, which has far more stringent standards than we have, comes from car exhausts. Carbon monoxide is a poison that reduces the flow of oxygen into the blood. People with weak hearts and the very young suffer extra strain even at low levels of exposure.

The second major source of pollution is to be found in the oxides of nitrogen. Admittedly, cars are not normally responsible for as high a proportion of these as of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. They are responsible perhaps for only 30 to 40 per cent. in most urban areas. Even a small concentration has been shown to cause respiratory problems for children and asthmatics—something that concerns me as an asthmatic.

Finally, there are the unburnt hydrocarbons, which, in combination with nitrogen oxides, have been identified as a major cause of acid rain and photochemical smog. Two years ago, I had the dubious privilege of seeing the disastrous results of acid rain pollution on the Black forest in West Germany. It would be most unwise to think that those effects occur only there and in Norway. Every time that we get a really fine summer day without strong winds, we also get ozone pollution outdoors at levels of concentration well above those permitted in factories by the factory inspectors. There is no escaping those effects; they are all around us.

Other countries have acted to control such emissions. The Clean Air Act passed in the United States in 1970 required motor manufacturers to cut atmospheric pollution from vehicle exhausts. The technology needed to do that was available in the form of autocatalysts. Since those became compulsory in 1975, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions have fallen by 90 per cent.—as a result of oxidation catalysts being fitted to the exhausts of new cars. Since 1981, when the three-way catalysts capable of removing nitrogen oxides also became compulsory, the emission of that gas has dropped by 75 per cent. Therefore, it is not surprising that other countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan have followed the American lead.

Here in Europe, members of the Stockholm group have adopted the United States emission standards. Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway have all decided to take that course. In the European Community, West Germany, Holland and Luxembourg have used fiscal incentives to promote the use of autocatalysts.

As a result of the Luxembourg compromise in 1985 — I emphasise the word "compromise" — the Commission produced a draft directive requiring cars with a capacity of more than 2 litres to have three-way catalytic converters fitted by 1989; those with engines between 1·4 and 2 litres would either have to have three-way catalysts or lean-burn engines fitted with oxidation catalysts, while those under 1·4 litres would require lean-burn engines alone.

I now understand — this is one reason why I have sought this debate—that the Community's Environment Ministers agreed at their meeting on 3 December that the directive should now be issued. I understand also that they have not yet decided what should happen about small cars. I understand further that Denmark is to go it alone arid have more stringent controls. I say, "Good for Denmark." That is undoubtedly progress. My hon. Friend will be entitled to claim credit for that on both economic arid technical grounds when he replies. However, the key question is whether it is an entirely appropriate solution in the long-term.

This issue is of great importance to my constituency, where General Motors' main United Kingdom plant, Vauxhall, is situated, and to the British-based motor manufacturing industry in general.

There is no doubt that we have the technology to solve the problem. Indeed, a British company, Johnson Matthey, pioneered the development of autocatalysts and is still the world leader in this field. That company, together with General Motors, is a major exporter of autocatalysts to the American and European markets. The difficulty that motor manufacturers based in Britain and suppliers like Johnson Matthey will face lies in the mixture of lean-burn and autocatalysts technology that is proposed in the directive.

It is not true to claim that lean-burn technology in itself offers a solution. Lean-burn engines cut emissions of nitrogen oxides at low speeds, but increase them at higher speeds. There has been some misleading, not to say irresponsible, advertising by one of our major motor manufacturers on that point. Furthermore, the leaner the engine, the higher the hydrocarbon emissions. That explains the need for oxidation catalysts to reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions on lean-burn engines.

The study conducted by the Warren Spring laboratory for the Department of the Environment suggests that, on official traffic forecasts, the adoption of the directive will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles by between 12 and 32 per cent. by 2010. If three-way catalysts were fitted to all cars, the estimated reduction would be between 60 and 69 per cent.

The directive offers a second-best solution, even if it is adopted now. A delay in its adoption until the 1990s will simply put back the date at which atmospheric pollution begins to be reduced.

I appreciate that one or two manufacturers face difficulties in completing their engine technology to accommodate autocatalysts on all their models. But all our manufacturers are already faced with the task of meeting American emission standards, if they are exporting. They will have to confront the problems of meeting those standards and complying with the much less rigorous European Community requirements in the 1990s. I do not believe that that is a satisfactory long-term prospect. Two of our major producers of motor vehicles are American, so they have the technology because that is what they provide in the United States. There is no reason why that technology should not be transferred.

The alternative is obviously to adopt three-way catalysts for models of all sizes, which is what I would prefer. Such catalysts are capable of dealing with unburnt hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and of converting them into harmless carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen. On environmental grounds, that is a clearly preferable course. I recognise that extra costs would be incurred by motor manufacturers and, in due course, by car purchasers. The basic cost of a catalyst is now about £50, although further modifications to an engine have to be made if one is fitted. In West Germany, where identical models with and without autocatalysts capable of meeting the proposed European standards on emission are available, the average price is about £214, and the figures of £500 to £1,000 that have been bandied around by some critics are highly exaggerated.

It is equally untrue to suggest that the fitting of autocatalysts has a dramatically adverse effect on engine performance and fuel economy. The figures that I have seen of tests on continental manufacturers' models suggest reductions in maximum speed for medium-sized cars—between 1·4 and 2 litres—of just over three miles per hour, and for larger cars of more than 2 litres of fractionally more than two miles per hour. On fuel economy, there was a marginal loss for small cars of 1·3 miles per gallon, and for large cars of 0·2 miles per gallon; medium-sized cars actually gained. I have taken part in a scientifically monitored test that confirmed those findings. The results are, I believe, acceptable in the light of the environmental gain offered — even when the cars are pushed, no difference in performance can be found.

The technical case for supporting three-way catalysts rather than the directive's compromise is compelling. This is an area in which Britain has a technological lead. We have taken the necessary steps to reduce the emission of lead, even though I am afraid that customers at the petrol stations have been very slow in demanding the product. That situation cannot last. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will feel able to provide an incentive to encourage the use of unleaded petrol when he makes his Budget statement later in the year. Unleaded petrol is essential if we use autocatalysts.

I do not believe, however, that we should settle for a second-best solution to the problem of exhaust emissions from motor vehicles. It may not, in any case, be possible to sustain the compromise envisaged in the Community directive indefinitely. There is pressure for environmentally clean vehicles to be produced here in the United Kingdom and in continental countries where the Green movement is strong.

It is interesting that a survey by a Scandinavian poll in this country shows that 45 per cent. of the public identified that cars were associated with contributing to acid rain. The adoption of American requirements within the European Community to conform with other continental countries is bound to reappear on the agenda. It may well enjoy some support from the Japanese and United States-based manufacturers operating in a global market. The threat of further penetration of our markets by such manufacturers cannot be discounted.

Let me put the issues as clearly as I can to my hon. Friend the Minister. Action has had to be taken to control vehicle exhaust emissions. The EEC's directive offers only a partial solution, even though the technical means to resolve the major problems is available. Three-way catalysts are already available for all classes of vehicle. They are relatively cheap and have little adverse effect on engine performance or fuel economy. A British company is the leading manufacturer, and most car producers such as Vauxhall are perfectly capable of adapting their vehicles to use them. It is in our commercial and environmental interests to adopt this solution.

My hon. Friend understands, I know, how technical a subject this is. It is vital that the Government's position is fully explained to satisfy the legitimate environmental concerns which underlie this debate. It will also help to clarify the thinking of the motor manufacturers and their suppliers. I accept that we have moved forward. I had hoped that we could move further and faster. I trust that the Minister will recognise the force of these arguments.

11 pm

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) for raising the question of motor vehicle emissions and their control. As the House will know, he has an excellent record as an assiduous and able advocate for his constituents and the companies operating within his constituency. I am certain that that point will be particularly appreciated by the Vauxhall Motor Company.

My hon. Friend has raised some important points and his proposal justifies careful consideration. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the issue and to place on record the considerable progress that we have made and to say what action is planned for the future.

My hon. Friend correctly identified the importance of the contribution made by road traffic to air pollution. He mentioned specifically carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and lead. I add to that list smoke emissions. In addition to these primary pollutants, vehicle emissions contribute to the formation of secondary pollutants, such as ozone, which he mentioned. The fact that legislation is in place or under discussion within the European Community to deal with all these pollutants demonstrates that the problems are taken seriously. I believe that these measures will lead to a significant improvement in air quality.

First, I should like to deal with the so-called Luxembourg package or compromise as it used to be called. The European Community directive specifies new standards that member states may apply to car emissions. It is to this directive in particular that my hon. Friend has drawn our attention. The Luxembourg package is an agreement made for European cars in the context of the European environment.

In approaching negotiations, the Government aimed for a step-by-step approach designed to tighten standards as improving technology allowed us to do so in a cost-effective manner. An important part of this approach was to take account of the fuel-efficient lean-burn technology being developed by various manufacturers, including those in the United Kingdom.

The directive in its final form reflects our approach. The standards agreed are a substantial improvement on previous regulations, but car manufacturers are able to take full advantage of new technologies and, in particular, the lean-burn engine. Standards are given for three categories of car — those above 2 litres in engine capacity, those with engines between 1·4 litres and 2 litres and those with engines of less than 1·4 litres.

My hon. Friend has summarised admirably the technical options that car makers will probably adopt to meet the new regulations. This is important. We do indeed expect that some manufacturers of medium cars will decide to fit three-way catalysts to particular models. My hon. Friend will no doubt be pleased to see a growing number of catalyst-equipped cars on the road. The new directive will allow enterprising manufacturers to continue to follow the lean-burn route, but it will not prevent the use of catalysts.

As my hon. Friend said, the Luxembourg directive was finally approved by the Environment Council last December. We have recently committed ourselves to implementing all its provisions. As regards the mandatory application of the exhaust emission standards for small and medium cars, we want to harmonise the dates as far as possible with other manufacturing countries. We are in active discussion with other member states to that end. We also intend to apply the large car standards as soon as practicable.

Predictions of future emissions and the formation of secondary pollutants are made within the Department's air quality research programme. My hon. Friend has raised two further issues essential to predictions of this kind — the growing number of vehicles on our roads, and the fact that pollutant emissions vary with speed. I should like to assure him that both factors have been taken into account in our calculations. It is currently estimated that the implementation of the Luxembourg package will more than offset the effects of traffic growth. Levels of both primary and secondary pollutants will be significantly below today's levels by the year 2000. Clearly, tighter standards of the kind suggested by my hon. Friend, for example, would further reduce pollutant levels. However, the improvements would be subject to a law of diminishing returns both in terms of the air quality improvements achieved and the cost of achieving them.

The costs associated with the new standards can, of course, only be estimated, and as technology develops so the estimates are revised. In the House last year my hon. Friend asked about those costs, and I am pleased to be able to give him more recent information. Our latest estimates are that controlled three-way catalysts would add £370 to the purchase cost of a car before tax. By comparison, the lean-burn plus oxidation catalyst route would add £150. Overall, we estimate that the Luxembourg agreement, as it stands, will add £550 million annually to United Kingdom motoring costs.

By contrast, the costs of applying three-way catalysts to all new cars are estimated to be well in excess of £1 billion a year. Those estimates do not take fully into account the potential for fuel economy improvements with lean-burn vehicles. Looking to the future, this potential, which is lost with three-way catalyst cars, is of major significance. Taking those costs together with the diminishing benefits obtained, we believe that United States levels of emission control would not be cost-effective for Europe.

Unleaded petrol has a link with the Luxembourg agreement, as the directive gives dates from which member states may insist that all cars must be able to run on unleaded petrol. The United Kingdom insisted on early dates, consistent with our policy of reducing environmental lead. A separate directive covering the distribution of unleaded petrol was approved in 1985. My Department has energetically pursued the directive requirement for balanced distribution of unleaded petrol throughout the United Kingdom by October 1989. This has to be a joint enterprise with the oil and motor industries, and we have set up the machinery for effective co-ordination. Now that the Luxembourg package has been approved, we will be implementing the earliest possible dates for cars to be required to be able to run on unleaded petrol and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be issuing draft regulations for consultation in the near future.

My remarks so far on the Luxembourg directive, in terms of the emission reductions expected and the costs, refer only to the first stage. The directive requires that proposals for a second stage of emission limits for the small car category be discussed this year. We are currently waiting for the Commission to present proposals to the Council.

The 3 December Environment Council agreed a common position on a directive, providing a first stage of limits for particulate emissions from diesel cars. Like the Luxembourg directive, this proposal also includes the provision of a second stage, to be considered in 1989.

The December Environment Council also gave its final approval to a directive limiting for the first time gaseous emissions from heavy diesels. Again, this is a first stage of regulation. Proposals for a second stage will be ready for consideration by the Environment Council by the end of this year. This second stage will further reduce the limits on emissions and introduce a limit on emission of particulates. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport told the First Standing Committee on European Community Documents on 25 March 1987, large diesel engines are now the dominant source of black smoke in urban areas. We shall be pressing the Commission to bring forward tough proposals for the most stringent limits technically and economically feasible.

In summary, we have at our disposal powerful new measures against air pollution from motor vehicles, arid more are to come. The Luxembourg agreement enables us to impose emission limits on cars which give a substantial reduction in primary and secondary pollutants, but which also encourage new and cost-effective technology. We remain convinced as a result of our most recent estimates that the adoption of emission limits for cars equivalent to those of the United States would entail additional costs that would not be justified by the air quality improvement likely to be achieved.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I know that he has taken a close interest in vehicle emissions and that the Vauxhall Motor Company in his constituency is concerned with the issue. It has been most useful to have the opportunity to discuss these very important matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eleven o 'clock.