Is encouraging the scrappage of roadworthy cars – even ones that don’t meet certain emission standards – the right way to go about improving air quality in urban areas?
After looking into the implications of Transport for London’s (TfL) new £110 million scrappage scheme, carwow consumer editor Hugo Griffiths is not so sure…
Back when I was a child in the 1990s, the lead on my Game Boy’s power supply broke.
Keen to avoid having to feed the Nintendo’s insatiable appetite for AA batteries, I took the plug to my science teacher hoping he could open it up and solder on a new lead.
Upon looking at the charger and seeing it appeared to be a sealed unit with no visible screws to facilitate its dismantling he returned it to me, remarking wistfully: “We live in a disposable age.”
Well, if 1991 was a disposable age, today must be one of hyper disposability.
Worldwide, 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste were generated in 2019 according to a UN-backed monitoring scheme (up from 44.3 Mt in 2014), of which just 17.3% was recycled.
But while few would argue that such figures are anything other than disheartening, vehicle scrappage schemes, such as the one recently announced to coincide with this summer’s expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, tend to be celebrated rather than being met with the critical eye they deserve.
An emissions own goal
These schemes see perfectly serviceable cars removed from the road, and this is by design: TfL's ULEZ scrappage scheme, for instance, dictates that any qualifying car must have a valid MOT, while owners of diesel vehicles made as recently as 2015 can receive £2,000 for scrapping their car.
In fairness, recycling figures for cars are rather more impressive than those for e-waste. Legislation mandates that 95% of every scrapped vehicle be recycled, while electronic waste sees mercury, cadmium, lead, chlorofluorocarbons and other hazardous substances contaminate groundwater supplies in the less economically developed countries where e-waste often ends up.
But while the environmental picture at the disposal end is rather different from e-waste, vehicle scrappage schemes are still a long way from being environmentally friendly.
Every car that is scrapped will, logic dictates, be replaced by a new vehicle – either directly when one is purchased by the scrapee, or indirectly as new vehicles enter the market to meet the gap left by scrappage.
And production of new cars is some distance from being environmentally friendly: research from EV maker Polestar indicates that building a new car generates between 16.1 and 26.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide in manufacturing and materials sourcing.
The goal of ULEZ is not to reduce global CO2 emissions, though, with the focus instead being on improving air quality in London by reducing nitrogen oxide and particulate pollution (which older diesel cars in particular produce), and that’s a noble intention.
But is encouraging the scrappage of roadworthy cars - even ones that don’t meet certain emission standards - the right way to go about this?
Leaving aside its restrictive nature, which sees people in receipt of certain benefits eligible, the ULEZ scrappage scheme is hardly small fry: its closest, most recent equivalent was the 2009 national scrappage scheme, described at the time as “not a strong environmental measure” by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
This was funded by £300m (equivalent to £421m today) in central government money that gave £1,000 to the cost of a new car, with manufacturers adding a further £1,000 discount. A total of 392,000 vehicles were scrapped under this scheme.
Assuming its impact correlates with the smaller pot of funds available, and adjusted for both inflation and the fact car makers aren’t contributing as they did in 2009, London’s £110m ULEZ programme will see an estimated 51,000 vehicles scrapped.
If those cars are all replaced by new vehicles one way or another, and taking an average from Polestar’s figures, around a million tonnes of CO2 will be emitted from the manufacturing of new cars.
As well as the CO2 implications, scrappage schemes shrink the number of older, more affordable cars available on the second-hand market – cars that would typically be bought by the less well-off, or young drivers keen for their first taste of freedom and independent transport.
We’ve already seen a huge rise in the cost of used cars in the past couple of years; depleting the market further will only push prices up more.
Few would argue that financial support around the expanding ULEZ is necessary, but environmental concerns aside, the £2,000 grant barely scratches the surface when it comes to new-car prices, particularly where electric cars are concerned.
A ‘tried and tested’ solution
So what’s the alternative to a scrappage? Well, the irony is that TfL already has one: retrofitting older diesel cars with pollution-busting technology that brings them in-line with the latest emission standards.
TfL is a bit of an expert at this: in 2014, in what was dubbed the world’s largest programme of its kind, it announced it had equipped over 1,000 buses with ‘Selective Catalytic Reduction’ (SCR).
Additionally, between 2017 and 2021, it spent £85m retrofitting more buses with this technology.
SCR, more commonly known as AdBlue, squirts tiny amounts of liquid urea into the exhaust gases of diesel engines to drastically reduce harmful nitrogen oxide emissions. Its presence is essentially what dictates whether a diesel car complies with the Euro 6 emission standards, which is what determines whether such a car meets ULEZ standards.
Similarly, diesel particulate filters, which capture microscopic particulate matter (essentially soot) from diesel exhausts could be retrofitted to vehicles that lack them.
These retrofitting programmes would not be cheap or straightforward but almost nothing is beyond modern engineering: just witness the number of companies that sprung up to convert petrol cars to run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Any funded programme geared around the retrofitting of emission-busting technologies to diesel cars would almost certainly encourage new businesses to spring up around London, and established firms to grow, benefitting the local economy.
Crucially, it would also spare vast expense for Londoners who are uncomfortably squeezed between not qualifying for TfL’s grant, and not having a ULEZ-compliant car.
Given the fact that the ULEZ scrappage scheme has put £110m on the table, and that TfL is a master bringing vehicles into compliance with emission standards, why not take this approach to cars that don’t meet the standards, rather than encouraging them to be scrapped?
Unfortunately, I fear it is too late for anything to be done: the wheels of the scrappage scheme have been set in motion.
TfL and the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, have fallen into the same trap I did with my Nintendo plug which, I found after I purchased a replacement, actually had accessible screws hidden under a thin film of plastic: they could have been removed and the plug repaired.
We may live in a hyperdisposable age, but with a little lateral thought and thorough investigation, we don’t have to.