Last week’s joint report from the environment, health, transport and environmental audit parliamentary select committees calling for serious action on toxic air pollution is extremely rare. Four committees, two chaired by Conservatives and two by Labour, and made up of 49 MPs from five different political parties, have come together to call on the government to stop putting public health at risk and provide leadership to tackle what they call a ‘national health emergency’ in the form of air pollution.
This unprecedented step is both right and necessary. As the report highlights, air pollution kills approximately 40,000 people in the UK a year and costs our economy in the region of £20bn. Those at greatest risk of this threat include the elderly, children and those with existing medical conditions. Yet despite the severity of the impacts of air pollution the government’s response has been found severely wanting.
The government has now lost three court cases for failing to provide a plan deemed sufficient to tackle Britain’s toxic air. The UK is failing to comply with EU law that sets out limits for air pollution, and few countries perform as poorly as the UK in terms of the number of areas that are non-compliant. Without major policy changes, most of the UK will remain in breach of legal limits for air pollution into 2025 and beyond.
As the select committee report highlights, one of the primary causes of air pollution (nitrogen dioxide emissions, or NO2) is road transport, and the main source (over three quarters) is diesel vehicles. This increase in diesel-related emissions has been driven largely by the growth in their use: they now make up 36 per cent of the UK’s car fleet (10.7m vehicles), up from 7 per cent (1.6m) in the 1990s. It stems, too, from the failure of diesel engines to deliver the expected reductions in emissions under real world driving conditions compared to test conditions.
Yet the government’s target of phasing out the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 is startlingly unambitious. After all, India has pledged to do it a decade earlier, in 2030, while Norway has set a target of selling only zero-emission vehicles by 2025.
As a bare minimum, any proposals that the government brings forward later this year should include all necessary policy interventions to bring the UK back into compliance with EU and UK law on pollution levels in the shortest possible timeframe. However, the reality is that the scale of the UK’s air pollution problem demands a much bolder response from government. Consequently, IPPR has made the case for an integrated strategy across three key areas of policy.
First, the government should use legislation, regulation and road pricing to progressively phase out diesel cars across the UK, in order to clean the air and speed up the shift to cleaner vehicles and alternative forms of transport. This means an explicit pledge to phase out the use of diesel cars in all major urban areas by 2025, and to ban them completely thereafter as part of a new Clean Air Act.
The ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, currently proposed for 2040, should be brought forward to 2030. Moreover, the government should also mandate the creation of a network of clean air zones covering all major urban areas in the UK, which, crucially, should enable local authorities to charge the drivers of dirty vehicles.
Second, the government should use its industrial strategy to invest in the research, design and commercialisation of new clean vehicles – including an increasing research and development spend, and tax reductions for industry – and provide a financial incentive for consumers to buy them through a smart scrappage scheme, in order to increase supply of green vehicles while reducing the cost of them.
Third, the government should focus on encouraging what is called ‘smart mobility’. At the moment, much attention goes into investing in public transport and the infrastructure needed to create a favourable climate for more efficient travel – including encouraging walking and cycling– in the UK’s cities. This must continue.
But these efforts should be complemented by the expansion of car clubs, journey planners and other applications of digital technology that encourage shared and efficient travel. A scrappage scheme could provide discounts or credits for these schemes, relieving people of expensive private car use altogether. Developing a full array of alternatives to private car use is key because around half of particulate matter air pollution from road transport – the tiny pieces of dirt that can get into our blood stream – comes from braking, tyre wear and tear, and dust on the road, all of which will not disappear with more electric vehicles. Vehicle miles need to be reduced, alongside diesel engines.
Furthermore, while attention has been focused, quite rightly, on the illegal and lethal levels of NO2 emissions that arise from road transport, we should not forget other contributors to air pollution. This is why IPPR is currently examining the evidence on pollution from other sources such as wood stoves, coal fires and smokeless fuel. While the pathogenic pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10) to which these sources contribute remain within legal limits, of the 40,000 annual premature deaths from air pollution, 29,000 are attributable to these types of particulates.
In this respect, Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity – to decide what kind of legal limits to set on an all types of air pollutants. The government must seize this opportunity to not only tackle this public health emergency head-on but to become a global leader determined to reduce air pollution and to mark out itself out as a frontrunner in the transition to a low carbon, greener and cleaner economy.
Luke Murphy is the Associate Director for the Environment, Housing and Infrastructure Team at IPPR. He tweets at @lukesmurphy.