Are Diesel Buses just Greenwashing?

Stagecoach Gold - 94 at Gloucester Bus Station - Elliot Brown - CC BY-SA 4.0
Stagecoach Gold – 94 at Gloucester Bus Station – Elliot Brown – CC BY-SA 4.0

Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) and Stagecoach West could be seen to be putting profit above planet in last year’s introduction of new diesel buses. The buses had a minor environmental upgrade – now using Euro 6 engines. This means a double decker bus, which can carry over 70 people, will give off fewer emissions than a new diesel car. These engines produce less than half the nitrogen oxide of Euro 5 engines. This sounds good but as we explain below it may simply be greenwashing.

Air pollution and diesel emissions

Clean Air Cheltenham take exception with the limited effectiveness of replacing diesel buses with more diesel, as opposed to transitioning to hydrogen or electric. With around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK being linked to air pollution, it is imperative that the country moves away from diesel transport.

Towns such as Oxford could be getting a fleet of electric buses after bidding last year to be part of the government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas scheme (ZEBRA). This scheme allocates councils money to assist with the financing of the transition to zero emission transport. The move from diesel to diesel is not going to help the environment in the long run. So, have Gloucestershire County Council wasted money on a project which ultimately will not be viable?

Last year Zurich, Switzerland, commissioned 45 electric buses and charging points to begin use in early 2022: this model could and should be replicated. Whilst the upfront cost of electric buses is considerable, a report has found that the Chicago Transit Authority is saving more than $50,000 a year in fuel and maintenance expenses due to the electric buses in the city.

Switching to electric

David Gray, county councillor for Winchcombe and Woodmancote and cabinet member for environment and planning, said the Euro 6 engines were a “step in the right direction but in the next few years we need to be increasingly switching to electric.” He highlighted the financial aspect of switching, especially with the current cost of living crisis: “sadly, councils don’t have a limitless pot of money.”

Whilst the latter is true, if Gloucestershire County Council had applied to be part of the ZEBRA, it would have been given a grant for replacing buses with electric ones. It is unclear why the council did not apply to be a part of this scheme.

We spoke with a resident from Warden Hill in Cheltenham, who said they would, “like to see hydrogen powered buses introduced in Cheltenham”. The UK is only eight years away from the ban on the sale of new cars which solely use petrol or diesel. This could expose an issue with the new diesel buses. What may be acceptable for diesel emissions currently may well not be so in five or six years’ time. This could force the new buses to be retired early.

Short-term stop-gap

Major cities such as Paris, Mexico City, Athens and Madrid are set to ban diesel vehicles in 2025. Globally, the World Health Organization says that 4.2 million deaths per annum are due to air pollution. So Gloucestershire’s alleged environmentally friendly upgrade is, therefore, only a short-term stop-gap rather than a long-term solution.

These Euro 6 engines for Gloucestershire’s buses could therefore be an example of ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is defined as branding something as green when it is not, and misleading consumers into thinking they are making a sustainable choice. The new diesel buses are better for the environment than the previous ones, but the infrastructure for electric buses is becoming increasingly accessible and in the long run, the Euro 6 engines will not be viable.

Gloucestershire County Council needs to take bigger steps to tackle air pollution, instead of baby steps which delay addressing the urgent and devastating problem at hand.

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