A 'toxicity charge' to penalise the heaviest polluting vehicles should be introduced to improve the environment and air quality, the head of a UAE green vehicle association has said.
The penalty would work to put drivers off hanging on to old cars and buying large-engined vehicles that pump out high emissions. It would instead encourage those with ageing vehicles to buy newer ones, and the owners of gas-guzzlers to downsize, choose hybrid or even electric.
Fares Al Mazrooei, founder of the UAE's Electric Vehicle Owner Association (EVOA) and a speaker at the World Future Energy Summit this month, said that without a system that would “punish” polluters and reward those who are more environmentally conscious, the UAE is "doomed.”
"There must be more incentives [to choose cleaner cars]," he said in an interview with The National.
Statistics released by the World Bank in 2015 claimed the UAE has the highest air pollutant average of any country on their list, including China and India; however, there was some controversy over the methods used to measure pollution with the UAE’s director for air quality saying the high reading for particulate pollution was because of the country's desert climate.
Particulate matter in the air we breathe is the tiny particles of sand, chemicals or dust that float around the air, a lot of it invisible to the naked eye. It is associated with premature mortality, especially from heart disease and attacks, cancers and strokes. These hazardous particles have also been linked with diabetes, neurological problems, impaired lung development in children, obesity and dementia.
Dr Samah El Beltagy, Specialist pulmonologist at Burjeel Medical Centre said that over the past few years, she has seen an increasing number of patients, particularly young children, with allergies and breathing problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
“While I cannot blame it all on pollution, I can safely say that it is a major contributing factor,” she said. “We need research and more control and limitations on highly polluting cars.”
The Royal College of Physicians estimates that in the UK alone, 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to outdoor air pollution. Last year, an emissions surcharge, known as the "T-charge", was introduced to tackle pollution in London, which frequently misses air quality targets. It charges drivers of diesel and petrol vehicles registered before 2006 Dh52 a day to drive in central London during weekday daytime in an attempt to tackle air pollution.
According to the RAC, this will include cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and HGVs, motorbikes, motorised caravans and horseboxes, private ambulances, motor hearses, dual purpose vehicles and other specialist vehicle types that do not meet the minimum Euro 4 emission standard, a classification based on the age of the car.
The T-charge is expected to affect up to 10,000 vehicles a day and is a sort of surcharge light in preparation for the introduction next year of an ultra-low emission zone, which will see more vehicles included in the restrictions.
France has also introduced the Crit'Air vignette scheme. The "clean air" windscreen stickers are colour-coded according to a vehicle’s emissions and riving in four major cities, including Paris, is restricted for the worst offenders.
The UAE is yet to take action on old or heavily polluting cars, despite a growing number of vehicles in the emirate; however, towards the end of last year, Dubai announced that new electric car owners will be able to charge their vehicles for free until 2019, get free tags so they are exempt from the Salik road toll system, use free designated green parking and get free electric vehicle registration and renewal fees.
Mr Al Mazrooei said current environmental policies in the country are in a “deadlock” and date back to the 80’s. He suggested a system "where there is a surcharge on high-capacity engines that produce more pollution,” and used the example of the French bonus-malus approach – reduced prices are offered on the purchase of new, low polluting cars and a penalty is placed on those emitting high levels of carbon dioxide.
“You take money [from the penalty] and put it in a fund so that people can benefit from a discount when purchasing cars with carbon producing emissions of below 100 grams [per kilometre]. Firstly, the Government will not have to pay anything at all, and secondly, the polluters will be paying.
"So if I want a Nissan petrol, then I pay for it.”
In line with the general acceptance of the recent introduction of a 5 per cent VAT on goods and services, Mr AL Mazrooei believes residents will not oppose additional charges for purchasing their much-coveted four-wheel drives and luxury fast cars.
However, Ben Pullen, managing director of Global EVRT, a Dubai-based organisation that runs conferences and road trips to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, said: “It still seems quite unimaginable to have [a surcharge] applied here now seeing the love that people have for big cars and the current freedom they have to buy cars.”
“We could instead increase incentives that are already in place for hybrid and electric vehicles ... Perhaps you could remove VAT from electric or lower polluting vehicles,” he said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has said there is no immediate concern over air pollution and that there are many “wrong perceptions” about the UAE’s air conditions.
Aisha Al Abdooli, director of green development and environmental affairs at the ministry, said: “There are many wrong perceptions [about the UAE] – people say we are very polluted, but come, show me the facts and figures. When you speak about pollution, you have to speak in facts and figures.”
Ms Al Abdooli also said the country already has “good incentives” in place to improve air quality giving the example of offers of free parking, free charging and other incentives introduced by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, which all encourage people to purchase green cars.
She said that although the country’s efforts to further improve air quality were going well, the country would continue to work towards further improvements. “According to our numbers and facts, there is an improvement, but we are in a country who is always seeking to be number one and to do that we can never be satisfied with whatever we achieve,” she said. “We have to seek for more.”
Dubai’s vehicle density of 540 per 1,000 people is the highest in the region and one of the highest in the world, according to stats provided by the Roads and Transport Authority in 2015.
The number of vehicles in Dubai doubled in the eight years between the end of 2006, when the number was 740,000, and the end of 2014, when the number was 1.4 million. That’s an average annual increase of 8.2 per cent, which is also one of the highest in the world.
According to a study issued in 2015 by the Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC), while the UAE may not rank as one of the most polluted countries, it is the increasing number of vehicles that are a concern.
It said: “Informed sources suggest that 24 per cent of CO2 emission in Dubai are due to transportation. About half these emissions are estimated to be due to road transport.”
The World Bank suggest that the UAE has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita. A study by the organisation said: “With the increasing population and higher average incomes, the number of vehicles has grown by 5 per cent per year for the past several years. Dubai has made an effort to control the growth of private vehicles by introducing the metro and public buses; however, these efforts are not substantial enough to reverse the growing trend of petrol vehicle use,” the study said.
Pollution from vehicles not only contributes to climate change, the World Bank said, but “severe health effects due to emissions of toxic gases.”
Among their recommendations is the introduction of “incentives and dis-incentives”. For polluting vehicles, a, “surcharge can be imposed on vehicles that emit pollutants at levels more than a specified quantity. Thus should drive greater awareness in consumers and positively impact their behaviour.”
Ms Al Abdooli said that soon, 2017’s air quality will be announced and it is to “far exceeded” previously set clean air targets.
Where Mr Al Mazrooei and Mr Pullen do agree, though, is that it is time to tackle the health hazards these polluting vehicle are causing.
“In the UAE, no one has tied [cars and health problems] together,” Mr Al Mazrooei said. “Right now, we should look at policies and change them. That means increasing subsidies on electricity bills, lifting the subsidies on fuel. Turn it into an open market and let people compete.”
Mr Pullen said: “At times walking down the street at Sheikh Zayed, you can smell the fumes. It all feels so unnecessary when you have so many solutions at hand.”
Mr Mazrooei believes that now the country should be “racing to implement policies.”
“In the UAE, how many children have a breathing problem?” he said. “My personal opinion is that we should not be worried, but very worried, because if it is not tackled correctly, we are doomed.”