UK's new air pollution plan dismissed as 'weak' and 'woefully inadequate'

Lawyers who forced ministers to deliver new proposals to tackle toxic air crisis say government is not taking responsibility for public health emergency

The government’s new plan to tackle the UK’s toxic air crisis is “much weaker than hoped for”, according to the environmental lawyers that forced ministers to deliver the proposals.

James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, said the government was “passing the buck” to local authorities and said he failed to see how the central proposal – clean air zones for urban areas – would be effective without charges to deter the most polluting vehicles.

Ministers were forced to act after a series of humiliating defeats in the courts, which ruled previous plans illegal. ClientEarth is now examining the latest plan and could go back to court again if it decides the measures will not reduce illegal levels of air pollution in the “shortest possible time”, as the law demands.

“The plan looks much weaker than we had hoped for,” said Thornton. “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.”

“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,” he said. “We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones proposed by the government will be effective. The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency.”

Thornton also criticised the government for failing to commit to a diesel scrappage scheme, saying this is crucial in persuading motorists to move to cleaner vehicles.

The consultation documents contain few concrete proposals and do not specify the cities and towns where polluting vehicles might face charges, the level of any charges or the scope or value of any scrappage scheme.

Instead, the plan puts the onus for action on local authorities: “Local authorities are already responsible for improving air quality in their area, but will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist.”

Analysis in the documents show increasing the number of clean air zones (CAZ) from the current six planned to 27 would make by far the greatest impact in cutting pollution and provide cost benefits of over £1bn. The CAZ policy would cut more than 1,000 times more NO2 than a scrappage scheme, even if that scheme requires old diesels to be replaced by electric cars.

But the plan requires local authorities to exhaust all other options before introducing CAZ charging for diesel vehicles, as will happen in London, such as removing speed bumps and retrofitting buses. But many experts back charging as the only effective option.

The new plan cites funding for electric taxis and hydrogen vehicles that had already been announced and commits only to “exploring” vehicle tax changes to incentivise cleaner cars and lorries. The documents also say the government “will engage with vehicle manufacturers on what role they might play in helping to improve air quality”. However, even new diesel cars produce far more NO2 on the road than in official regulatory tests.

“This is not a plan, it’s a cop-out,” said Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary. “The Conservative government is shamefully failing in its duty to tackle deadly pollution that is claiming thousands of lives a year.”

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, said: “The government is standing idly by while Britain chokes. This feeble plan won’t go anywhere near far enough in tackling this public health emergency.”

Ministers have been determined to avoid being blamed for charging diesel drivers to enter polluted urban areas in the midst of an election campaign. “Conservatives believe that poor air quality is the largest environmental threat to public health in the UK,” said a party press release. “But there is a clear choice in terms of policy response – between common sense measures that will improve air quality, and higher taxes under Labour.”

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

“This a half-baked plan that puts poll ratings before people’s health,” said Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist. “The only real winners are the car makers who, despite misleading customers about their cars’ real emissions and causing this mess in the first place are getting off scot-free.”

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, which represents vehicle manufacturers, said any pollution charges on diesel vehicles would only apply to those made before 2015 and welcomed a possible scrappage scheme: “Industry has spent billions developing new low emission cars, vans, trucks and buses and getting these new cleaner vehicles on to our roads quickly is part of the solution.”

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, emitted mostly by diesel vehicles, have been above legal limits in almost 90% of urban areas in the UK since 2010. The fumes are estimated to cause 23,500 early deaths a year and the problem was declared a public health emergency by a cross-party committee of MPs in April 2016.

WHO: air pollution causes 7m premature deaths a year

The government first lost to ClientEarth over the adequacy of its strategy in April 2015 and was ordered to come up with a new plan.

However, the plan included just six CAZs where some polluting diesel vehicles would be charged to enter city centres. ClientEarth, believing this to be inadequate, went back to court and won again in November 2016.

Court documents revealed that the Treasury, then run by George Osborne, had blocked proposals from other government departments for 16 CAZs in towns and cities blighted by air pollution, due to concern about the political impact. Both the environment and transport departments also recommended changes to vehicle excise duty to encourage the purchase of low-pollution vehicles, but the Treasury also rejected that idea.

Conservative ministers have sought to blame previous Labour governments for giving tax breaks for diesel cars, which produce less climate-warming carbon dioxide. But experts say all governments since the 1990s have done this.

Furthermore, government officials at the time were aware that diesel cars produce high levels of NO2 but they expected tightening EU emissions regulations to curb the problem.

However, car manufacturers found ways to circumvent the rules and across the industry produced vehicles that emit far more NO2 on the road than in the official lab-based tests. Transport campaigners argue that, as in Germany and France, car makers should be forced to pay for upgrades to their vehicles to cut pollution.


Damian Carrington Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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