Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said Brown had made a mistake as Labour chancellor when he cut the duty on low-sulphur diesel by 3p in his 2001 budget. Brown announced the measure ahead of that year’s general election to help meet climate change targets around carbon.

However, it has since emerged that diesel engines emit up to four times as many nitrogen oxides as petrol cars and 20 times as many particulates, which have been linked to problems in the lungs, heart and brain.
McLoughlin made the comments to the London Evening Standard, which said that 9,400 Londoners die prematurely every year from breathing the city’s polluted air.

“We have got to look at that,” McLoughlin told the newspaper. “It is something the chancellor will need to look at in due course.”

Asked if Brown had made a mistake, McLoughlin said: “Yes. In fairness they thought they were doing the right thing. The consequences of what they did was to bring about a reduction in carbon.”

But he added: “It’s something that we’ve got to address. We are addressing it through the government’s air quality strategy, and by putting money into public transport like the Elizabeth line.”

The government is also spending £600 million on electric cars and charging points, and working with manufacturers to reduce emissions.

The push to promote diesel, in a misguided attempt to help the environment, came out of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, through which countries agreed to cut greenhouse gases. Brown said that diesel vehicles should benefit from lower tax because of their low carbon performance.

That meant a reduction in the price of diesel at the pumps but also a new system rewarding cars with low CO2 emissions. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is considering a new “T-Charge” on vehicles on top of the congestion charge to help clean up the city’s toxic air.

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