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What Did Gummer Know About The Risks Of Diesel?

July 27, 2015

By Paul Homewood  




Scientists warned British ministers 22 years ago their planned “dash for diesel” could cause a public health disaster, but were ignored because the then government believed climate change was more important, documents released under freedom of information rules have revealed.

About 50,000 people die annually because of air pollution, yet many deaths might have been prevented had ministers heeded a 1993 report handed to the then environment secretary, John Gummer — now Lord Deben — warning that any increase in diesel could have just such a consequence.

It said that although diesel produced less of the key greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), it produced more of the toxic nitrogen dioxide and particulates that damage health.

It added: “The impact of diesel vehicles on urban air quality is a serious one. Any increase in the proportion of diesel vehicles on urban streets is to be viewed with concern unless problems of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides emissions are addressed.”

But the warning came at a time when climate change was seen as a more pressing issue than air quality. Margaret Thatcher had championed climate issues, telling the UN in 1989: “The most pressing task which faces us at the international level is to negotiate a framework convention on climate change.”

She also told ministers to prioritise the problem, a policy that continued when John Major replaced her as prime minister in 1990, overseeing budgets that favoured diesel. In 1992 this included a sharp cut in the tax on diesel company cars.

The documents show concerns about air quality were sidelined by civil servants in favour of climate change: “Research so far suggests that diesel emissions present a very low level of health risk.”

This was untrue; by then many scientists had warned of the risk if the government continued to promote diesel.

Among them was Martin Williams, head of the former Department of the Environment’s air quality research unit for 20 years from 1993, who said ministers were clear climate change and fuel efficiency had priority.

“Climate change took precedence. At that time there were discussions in Europe to cut the average CO2 emissions of new cars by 25%. Diesel was seen as the way to achieve this because it was considered more efficient,” he said.

In 1994 Gummer showed some awareness of scientists’ concerns over diesel. Asked whether unleaded petrol or diesel-powered cars were “better for the environment”, he said: “When diesel cars are used largely for longer journeys, there is a real environmental advantage. If they are used for stopping and starting in towns, the balance goes the other way.”

Last week Gummer, who is now chairman of the government committee on climate change, said he could not remember discussions from so long ago, but he added: “In attempting to solve one problem, we inadvertently land ourselves with another.”


Diesel fumes play part in premature deaths of Londoners

Financial Times, 15 July 2015

Large numbers of diesel vehicles on London’s streets have contributed to the early deaths of thousands more people than previously thought, a report from the Mayor’s office has revealed.

Up to 9,400 people died prematurely in 2010 because they spent years breathing in pollutants commonly found in fumes from diesel trucks, buses and cars, according to a study by King’s College London academics.

That is more than twice the number calculated in previous studies and it shows Londoners are more likely to be killed by the air they breathe than a car accident, said the British Lung Foundation.



Gummer, now Lord Deben, has serious questions to answer. To simply shrug them off, as he has tried to do, is a disgrace and should not be tolerated.

  1. July 27, 2015 1:47 pm

    We just “did” the particulate scare recently …Ah where was it ?..Ah yes there was a good report in WUWT, where I commented on July 1st

  2. July 27, 2015 2:22 pm

    Thirty years ago I already knew that most environmental scares were bogus or exaggerated (the First Law of Environmental Scares). I did a consulting job which required my reading about the dangers of diesel engines, and I then realised that there is a Second Law of Environmental Scares: genuinely worrying phenomena will not be elevated into scares if they are not sexy enough.

  3. Philip Aggrey permalink
    July 27, 2015 4:33 pm

    Not entirely sure why we believe one set of environmental scares over another (Smoking vs Lead vs Particulates vs CO2 vs cholesterol vs sugar). Nowadays it seems there’s always someone with a vested interest in trying to prove (or just state, backed up with dodgy data) that everything is bad for you, including going to the lavatory. We wonder why Joe Public doesn’t give a flying pig anymore about genuine stuff/risks such as using a mobile while driving. I guess if the ‘facts’ change I ought to change my mind and I always will. Unfortunately, the facts about ‘climate change’ keep being manipulated for fiscal and personal gain. Can’t stand the smell of diesel fumes though especially from trucks and buses in London.

  4. Retired Dave permalink
    July 27, 2015 4:38 pm

    Any environmental scare about fossil fuels will never cancel out the good that they have done. The use of fossil fuels has improved and extended the life of people on Earth over the last 200 years. Life expectancy has increased by decades due the heavy lifting that FF have done to replace human muscle. They have increased the wealth of us all.

    Does this mean we should be foolish about environmental issues – well no, and the latest diesel cars have particulate filters that reduce their harmful effects. We should never take our environment for granted, but we should be clear about the benefits of FF’s

    BUT, I would assert that I am likely to live a longer life, even with a little NO to breath, than my great grandfather did breathing pure air working in the fields of Lincolnshire 12 plus hours a day.

  5. Bloke down the pub permalink
    July 27, 2015 7:19 pm

    Is there any piece of green legislation that has not had unintended detrimental effects on society potentially worse than anything the legislation was trying to cure?

  6. sadbutmadlad permalink
    July 27, 2015 7:32 pm

    Gummer only has questions to answer if the problem with diesel fumes is real. The deaths that are due to particulate pollution are just a statistical anomaly. Is there such a thing a premature death when it includes those who could have died ten minutes earlier or ten years earlier than the norm.

    • July 27, 2015 9:32 pm

      I suppose the real issue is that he was handed a report that said it was dangerous. Unless he knew it was wrong he is culpable.

  7. john cooknell permalink
    July 27, 2015 8:47 pm

    Gummer may have been right!

    I have read through PHE-CRCE-010: Estimating Local Mortality Burdens associated with Particulate Air Pollution. I have a difficulty reconciling this excellent study with the actual mortality statistics from ONS, which show that life expectancy in UK is greatest in the air polluted London and South East region. I know there are uncertainties in all these matters, populations are different, people move around, air pollution changes over time etc etc, It indicates to me that perhaps air pollution isn’t as important as other factors.

    With air pollution there is a paradox that mortality statistics (real data not an estimate) from ONS show that those who live in the most affluent air polluted parts of the country (London and SE) tend to live longer than those who live in less air polluted areas.

    “About 50,000 people die annually because of air pollution”???? this suggests air pollution could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK.

    Intuitively and at a common sense level this appears to be a ridiculous thing to say, and after doing a little background research I have concluded it is inaccurate and is a ridiculous thing to say.

    The COMEAP scientific report for PHE, from which the mortality estimate is derived, makes the mortality burden comparison of air pollution to the “environmental effects of smoking” i.e. second hand smoking which is estimated to cause about 3000 deaths per annum, this comparison appears to make sense!

    I would point out that COMEAP make extensive comments on the uncertainties of their mortality burden estimate (based on a model) and suggest the use of caution in how this information should be communicated.

    My own view is that air pollution from traffic is something we should put in context with all the other things that cause a “mortality burden”, there is extensive information on this on the PHE website. In short PHE know that your life will be much healthier if you don’t end up being economically poor, don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess and maintain a good diet coupled with healthy weight and fitness.

    If we are bothered about air pollution why are we allowing the current fashion for domestic “Log Burners” to go on unabated, My observation is the countryside is now getting very smoky in winter.

    Also the report makes comment about how it is impossible to remove all human induced harmful air pollution, and improving things from existing low ambient levels would be very difficult , i.e. we have to live with those around us.

  8. July 27, 2015 9:33 pm

    Here we go again with fake science on so many levels it defies belief. But if you purport to know anything about diesel engine emissions, rather than just spouting on you would know that today’s engines BOTH automotive and industrial have to meet the most stringent of certification levels and are for all practical purposes Zero emissions. This is fact and not make believe, and the regulators have admitted they are struggling to measure the minuscule low levels. I am ignoring the fake emission CO2 as it cannot in any way shape or form be considered harmful to life.

    Now these zero levels are important because this study by the UN (not one of our friends) has concluded that urban area particulates don’t in the main come from automotive diesels, as the overall urban levels have not dropped despite the complete elimination of particulate emissions from Automotive diesels. This was not expected.

    Following on from this it is almost impossible to find any scientific study that has the proper rigour applied with a decent sample size and the necessary control groups that show the levels of diesel particulates we are subject to in our lives reduce our life expectancy let alone are the direct cause of death. I only see fake science and agenda driven reports.

    Was it right to control emissions from internal combustion engines? Of course it was, CO from petrol’s (spark ignited engines) is a deadly poison that continues to kill to this day, NOx from all engines turns the air in our cities brown. Black smoke (which is not particulates) turned everything black and had an offensive smell, as did the petrol engine.

    I’m of the opinion that the environmental zealots in our world didn’t believe that our engineers could achieve what many thought impossible and clean up the use of hydro carbon fuel. So they go after the obscure, and produce report that none of us no matter how clever we think we are can disprove. We just don’t have the resource. It’s only when the stupidity get out of control and starts impinging on our everyday lives that we get some collective action. But this is usually as a result of the establishment miscalculating and starting to fleece us too severely, as has happened with global warming and all the renewable crap. Remember it’s easier to control fake science for money making means than it is real science.


    • July 27, 2015 10:23 pm

      But what did Gummer know in 1993?

      Did he deliberately ignore the advice he had then, to promote his global warming agenda?

      • July 28, 2015 11:15 pm

        Paul In 1993 Euro 1 came into force. This was the first serious reduction in emissions in Europe and was still behind what the US had done in 91. Euro1 did not cause any grief in meeting the particulate levels but was a challenge to get the NOx down without destroying fuel economy. Daimler Benz amongst other were prominent in trying to delay these regulations as they did not have the technology and were forced to introduce a modified product with no new technology that was appalling in both performance and fuel economy. Germans only like to do things when it suits them and they have an advantage, and in the 93 they were nowhere. They were forced to buy into Detroit Diesel of the US to get access electronic fuel system for Euro2

        At that point in 1993 it was clearly mapped out that zero emissions was the target for the new millennia. How it would be achieved was not known, but that it could be done was accepted. And I would like to point out that the biggest challenge in meeting the particulate levels was in controlling oil consumption, given that the combustion process had to be tuned to reducing NOx. On medium and heavy duty engines meeting the particulate levels has been mostly done without the use of a particulate trap. Only on some city bus applications where incentives where offered to fit traps on older engines to meet new Regs were they used, but they always increased fuel consumption, which to me as an engineer seemed counterproductive. On light duty engines in Cars traps have been used from Euro5 and perhaps on some Euro4 engines, but the levels were always less stringent on these engines due to the excessive loading onto the cost of the power plant where the emission reduction technology would have cost twice or more the cost of the rest of the engine.

        To get back to your original point in the article, Did Gummer ignore sound advice, In this instance I would say no, given the advice probably paid no head to any sensible scientific or engineering fact in the first place.

        So much has been made of particulates, but I bet no one could come up with the name of a single person who has died as a result of diesel fumes other than suicide, and even then it was hard to do with a diesel that has never produced enough CO. Diesel engines are certified for use in underground mines, and many an investigation has been run on the miners trying to pin any of their health problem on the diesels. That they have all been unsuccessful is telling.

  9. tomo permalink
    July 28, 2015 9:50 am

    rearranging …. agenda driven reports and fake science (in that order) are at epidemic proportions.

    The MSM ever keen to run a scare story without doing the related x-reference etc. – how can we expect them to get close to the truth when those charged with analysis only do a half baked job skewed by confirmation bias at 97% ?

    The epidemiology studies on diesel particulates are a mess – compounded (orphaned?) by the large changes in diesel technology between ’93 and 2015.

    PeterMG – that last paragraph +1 – I’d add that the engineers are relegated to constructing intensive cucumber farms and sunbeam extraction apparatus at the whim of the deluded zealots – who substitute vehemence and volume for knowledge and experience.

  10. Mark Hodgson permalink
    July 28, 2015 10:33 am

    I agree that Gummer/Deben’s simple shrugging off the report isn’t really good enough, but it’s exactly what I would have expected.

    Then again, like others commenting on this piece, I am sceptical of the alarmist report behind it (if I’m going to be sceptical about alarmist climate change reports, I think it’s important to be consistently sceptical).

    For me the bigger issue about Lord Deben is the direct conflict between his business/financial interests, and his role as Chairman of the UK Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change. It’s not good enough for me that his business and financial interests are disclosed and are therefore “transparent”. The conflict of interest is obvious and shouldn’t be allowed. He uses his position as Chair of the Committee on at least one of his corporate websites (Sancroft International Limited), which (inaccurately?) describes him as “Chairman of the UK GOVERNMENT’S Committee on Climate Change” (my emphasis). According to its website, “Sancroft is an international sustainability consultancy. We provide valued and trusted advice to multinational companies across the full spectrum of ethical, environmental and social issues.”

    Then there’s his interest in Valpak Limited, whose website claims it is a “leading provider of environmental compliance, recycling and sustainability solutions”.

    Then there’s his interest in Veolia, whose website harps on about things like this: “Veolia Water Technologies helps customers to grow Sustainably: to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.

    “In line with Veolia’s vision for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a strategy for Sustainable Development has been defined and is key to our business activities. We offer innovative and responsible solutions to meet the increasingly strict environmental requirements and economical pressures facing industries today.”

    I’m not saying he’s done anything wrong – he hasn’t; everything is disclosed, as legally required. But the conflict of interest point remains. And, in addition to his conflict of interest, there is the way the BBC gives him airspace as some sort of expert because of his committee chairmanship, while never introducing him in a way which allows listeners or viewers to be aware of his business interests and the inherent conflict in his roles. Compare and contrast the way Nigel Lawson is introduced by BBC programmes on the increasingly rare occasions on which he is given airspace. He is always introduced as a sceptic and his role in GWPF is always made clear, in a way which strongly implies – at least to this listener – that the BBC thinks he has a conflict and nobody should really take any notice of him.

  11. John Marshall permalink
    July 28, 2015 10:37 am

    When the EPA in US brought in the 2.5micron rule there was actually zero research into the risks of inhaling pm2.5 diesel particulates. EPA attempts to do such after the event was prohibited on the grounds of their ruling on pm2.5.

    The problem is that there are other pm2.5 particulates that are known to be harmful:-
    Pollen, bacteria, virises, fungal spores, all are in the atmosphere and nothing can be done to reduce them.
    Particulate carbon is not harmful. It might be found in the lungs but that does not mean harm is being done.

    • July 28, 2015 10:49 am

      Not intending to scaremonger (!) – but the pathology is afaics quite sparse wrt to the actual makeup of diesel particulates and in particular the allotropic composition is not much explored. It’s soot but … quite complicated soot or not???

      But yes pm2.5s are diverse 🙂

  12. Coeur de Lion permalink
    July 29, 2015 9:32 am

    I heard Gummer as Lord Deben tell John Humphreys on the BBC Today programme that all ‘deniers’ are funded by the fossil fuel industry – that tired old lefty trope. He should have been pressed by JH but it’s the Beeb of course.


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