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UK clean air plan July 2017

26th July 2017

Traffic jam in a UK town

DEFRA today published its plan to reduce roadside NO2.

UK clean air plan July 2017: the key points

Are conventionally-powered vehicles going to be banned? It's an 'intention' that sales will stop from 2040, and it's a re-announcement of a policy already made public in 2011.

Who is to blame for NO2 pollution? According to DEFRA, 'the failure of the European regulatory system' is to blame. The fact that the UK government lobbied to weaken the rules isn't mentioned, and car manufacturers largely escape censure for circumventing the regulations by producing vehicles which emit many times more pollution on the road than in the lab.

What is the government going to do about the pollution problem? DEFRA says that it is a localised problem, and the onus is on local authorities to solve it. The government will set a framework, and ask local authorities to produce plans to deal with the problem.

What's the timescale? Local authority plans must be published in draft by 31st March 2018, with final plans by 31st December 2018.

Is there any government money to tackle pollution? £255 million to help local authorities produce plans, plus a future Clean Air Fund to enable them take action (no details yet). All the money will come from shuffling existing departmental budgets, or taxing new diesel cars.

UK clean air plan July 2017: the details in the government's overview document

Diesel 4 by 4

Back to the future

The overview document refers back to an announcement in 2011 that the UK's 'intention' is for conventional car and van sales to end by 2040. 

The same paragraph of the document mentions that 'in 2016 UK manufactured Nissan Leafs accounted for almost 20% of battery electric car sales across Europe...' - which is good, but irrelevant to local pollution in the UK. The report goes on to say that the UK had the highest sales of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the EU.

The overview also refers back to various pots of money previously announced and committed. That includes £1.2bn mentioned in the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, 'which may be invested in cycling and walking from 2016-21'.

Future measures still being developed include a Clean Growth Plan from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, and a Clean Air Strategy due in 2018.

The fault of the rules, or the manufacturers getting around them?

DEFRA blames high levels of NO2 pollution on the EU. Poor air quality is '...a direct result of the failure of the European regulatory system to deliver expected improvements in vehicle emissions.' In fact, the problem has arisen because vehicle manufacturers have circumvented the standards, by making cars which emit many times more NO2 on the roads than they do in laboratory test conditions. The UK government has lobbied the EU against more stringent standards - which is difficult to square with DEFRA lamenting the weakness of the regulatory system. 

Later in the report, DEFRA states, 'the UK led the way in Europe in pushing for tough new type approval standards for cars and vans, including the 'real world' driving emissions tests that start to take effect from September this year, alongside tougher laboratory tests.' At the very least, that seems to be a partial account of DEFRA's actions.

A local problem for local people?

Under the heading, 'the government's solution', the report suggests that the NO2 pollution problem is very localised, and that action should be restricted to 'fewer than 100 major roads which national modelling suggests will continue to have air pollution problems in 2021, mostly in cities and towns.' 

The logic here is hard to follow. The idea that problems are restricted to 'a few problem roads', may arise because local authorities only measure in a few places. There are thousands of polluted places where no measurements are carried out. Speculating about how many polluted places there will be in 2021 seems an odd way of deciding what action is needed now.

Putting the onus on local authorities

Having asserted that the problem is localised, DEFRA puts the onus on local authorities to take 'a leading role'. The document does at least say that DEFRA will set a 'clear national framework' for steps local authorities should take, and provide 'direct financial support'. Local authorities are asked to produce initial plans by the end of March 2018, and final plans by the end of December 2018.

Local authority measures could include restrictions on on vehicles, or charging zones for certain vehicles on particular roads at particular times. DEFRA is clear that the measures should not '...unfairly penalise ordinary working families who bought diesel vehicles in good faith.'

There's to be a £255 million Implementation Fund for local authorities to prepare their plans. A Clean Air Fund will be announced later in the year, and local authorities will be able to bid for money from it to take steps to improve air quality. The money will come from changes to taxation of new diesel cars, and/or existing departmental budgets.

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