Government's urban air quality plans 'weak' and 'ineffective'

The UK Government's urban air quality plans, published today have been described by environmental campaigners as ‘weak’, 'ineffective' and 'passing the buck'.

After losing its case in the High Court to delay publication of the draft plans, the consultation documents are now open until 15th June. The proposals - which are already late in being published - focus on a large number of potential measures including the creation of new Clean Air Zones in a number of towns and cities across the UK, with supporting action potentially involving charging the most polluting vehicles to enter certain areas and encouraging the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs).

However, critics have been quick to highlight deficiencies in the draft plans, noting that a key measure, the provision of a funded diesel scrappage scheme is no longer being considered by national government, despite there being strong evidence that this would have been effective in reducing NOx emission from the diesel fleet.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, the organisation that first took the government to court over its lack of an effective plan, said: "We are continuing to study the government's latest air quality plan, but on the face of it it looks much weaker than we had hoped for. The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.

"The government has also failed to commit to a diesel scrappage scheme and this is a crucial element of the range of measures needed to persuade motorists to move to cleaner vehicles..."

Moreover, national government appears to be passing the responsibility to local authorities to implement vehicle emission reduction schemes, possibly to avoid potential political fallout from imposing charges or restrictions on the drivers of the most polluting vehicles. Arguing that: “Local authorities know their areas best and are best placed to take the lead in rectifying the problem”, the consultation document then goes on to recommend that: “Any local authority can implement a Clean Air Zone to address a local air quality issue.”

Dr Ben Lane, Director at Next Green Car also points out a key contradiction of the draft plans: “The UK Government seems to want to have its cake and eat it; while acknowledging that charging the most polluting cars to enter a Clean Air Zone would be effective in improving urban air quality, it first passes the buck to local authorities to implement, and then advises that local authorities should first consider non-charging measures; one imagines to appease diesel drivers who may not be happy at being charged to drive vehicles recently encouraged by national government through lower vehicle taxation.”

Thornton at ClientEarth adds: "There needs to be a national network of Clean Air Zones which prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most illegally polluted streets in our towns and cities. We fail to see how the non-charging Clean Air Zones, proposed by the government, will be effective if they don't persuade motorists to stay out of those areas."

One key omission of the consultation document is a full cost-benefit analysis and comparison of potential measures. Instead the air quality plan merely lists possible measures ranging from ULEV fleet procurement and diesel vehicle retrofit technologies to encouraging use of public transport, cycling, and walking. The document also gives undue weight to national air quality figures rather than data more suited to urban areas, the actual focus of the consultation.

Incredulously to many air quality campaigners, the air quality plan also advocates the use of road building as a one option to improve air quality, using investment provided by the National Productivity Investment Fund. While some congestion alleviation schemes may be useful in reducing air pollution, there is also strong evidence that road building increases traffic demand which would undermine any initial air quality gains.

On a positive note, Dr Lane at Next Green Car highlights the weight given to the promotion of ULEVs and electric vehicles in the draft plans: “Fortunately, the government is providing sustained support and funding for electric cars, vans, taxis and buses across the UK to the tune of £870 million to 2020. Not only is the switch from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles good for energy security and jobs, zero-emission vehicles also offer dramatic reductions in carbon emissions and significant improvements in urban air quality.”

Plans are already in place to introduce Clean Air Zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, and Southampton, as well as funding for Greater Manchester, and Bristol and South Gloucestershire. Currently, London leads the way; in addition to the Low Emission Zone which already affects lorries, coaches and larger vans, the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn is to introduce the ’Toxicity Charge’ for all vehicles to start this Autumn, with expansion of plans, boundaries and limits taking place over the next few years.

Consultation document: Improving air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities Draft UK Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide .

Find out more about vehicle emissions here

Ben Lane

Author:Ben Lane
Date Updated:5th May 2017

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