Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Driving change: the cost of diesel

Demand for low-emission diesel cars - seen as a cheaper, greener alternative - is soaring as the price of oil continues to rise.But there are fears that the fuel's health dangers are being ignored

by John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Breathe deep outside Ford's new engine plant at Dagenham in east London and you are likely to choke on a mix of pollutants. Minute flecks of soot and ash from the clogged traffic on the nearby A13 main road get up your nose and down into your lungs; acrid whiffs of burning sulfur and nitrogen drift in from ships on the Thames and planes flying into City airport; and nearby sewage works and power stations all pitch in to make a foul atmospheric soup. Postcode RM9 6SA stinks.

But it is another world inside the factory. While Ford Dagenham makes gas-guzzling, V8 turbo-powered gasoline engines for Land Rover and Jaguar cars in the traditional dirty way, a separate area of the factory, about the size of six soccer pitches, is quite spotless. Here, breathing only filtered air, 500 people wearing gloves, masks and special shoes turn out vast numbers of low-emission car engines for all Europe.

"It's like a hospital, but without the MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium responsible for difficult-to-treat infections in humans]," says one of the men on the factory floor. "We don't even have to start the engines. We simulate running them without any fuel."

Jim Austen, a test engineer, says: "In the old days, you used not to be able to see from one end of the line to the other for the fumes and dirt and the chimneys. It was very noisy, and you went home stinking of diesel. It's good to be on the side of the environment. It makes what you are working for more meaningful."

Europe's cleanest, and one of its largest, diesel engine factory can barely keep up with new orders. Ford, which sells one in six of all the vehicles in Britain, last year built 150,000 low-emission diesel engines for the European market. This year, it will be over 450,000, and next year it expects to ship 575,000 of these sub-130-gram-per-kilometer engines out of Dagenham to assembly works in Spain and Germany. Nearly one in four of the engines will come back to Britain as Ford Fiestas, Fusions and Focuses. Some already do 23km per liter, but later this year there will be models that return 25km per liter. All will qualify for London's new low-emission zone, and an attractive government tax break.

The shift to diesel is a direct response by the car makers to climate change concerns, but especially to oil prices, which last week again set new records.

"We are being overwhelmed by demand," said Oliver Rowe, communications officer for Ford Britain. "Sales [of 'green' cars] rose 33 percent last year and we expect the trend to accelerate. A major change is taking place in Europe, away from bigger engine gasoline cars to smaller diesel cars. It's being driven by high energy prices and budget changes in favor of small engines."

"The EU is driving manufacturers to get under 130g/km carbon dioxide emissions. Competition from other companies and public demand all are making us improve fuel consumption and lower [carbon] emissions. People are downsizing. Small cars means small engines means small emissions. I cannot see it changing. It's a real race to get small," he said.

Britain is leading the global rush to diesel, Rowe says, partly because it has always lagged behind Europe and is now catching up, and partly because former London mayor Ken Livingstone waged a long war on traffic and emissions with the world's first congestion charge and now a low-emission zone. The westward extension to the London congestion charge and planned changes to penalize gas guzzlers will almost certainly be scrapped under new London Mayor Boris Johnson, but the soaring fuel price rises alone are expected to drive demand for small cars and diesels that can achieve more kilometers per liter in particular.

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