The government’s final £3bn Air Quality Plan has been branded cynical and weak by environmental campaigners, despite including steps towards achieving zero emission roads.
A draft version of the plan was published in May ahead of the publication yesterday of the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations produced by Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport. Although a flagship policy to scrap petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 was greeted positively by some campaigners, others were quick to point out that clean air zones, which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter certain areas of towns and cities, took a minor role in the plans - essentially as a last resort for local authorities.
A £255M fund will allow councils to develop their own ways to tackle air pollution, with no incentive to implement charging zones for the most polluting vehicles. A further £40M will be made available immediately to allow councils to change road layouts to improve congestion, and to retrofit older vehicles to reduce emissions.
While the Local Government Association said it was important for councils to have flexibility over setting up clean air zones, environmental campaigners said government was “passing the buck”.
“On our initial examination, this is little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans and is underwhelming and lacking in urgency. Having promised to make air quality a top priority, Michael Gove appears to have fallen at the first hurdle,” said ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton.
In 2015 environmental law group ClientEarth took the government to court over its Air Quality Plan, describing it as too weak to make a significant difference to air quality and raising concerns that over positive pollution modelling had been used.
Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth described the plans as “cynical”.
“Today’s announcement is weak on Clean Air Zones, weak on a scrappage scheme, and passes the buck to local authorities. Lives will continue to be cut short because the government hasn’t got the guts to restrict where the worst polluting vehicles can go,” said Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Oliver Hayes.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to introduce an ultra low emission zone (Ulez) for London in 2019, with the aim of cutting London’s nitrogen oxide emissions by 50% by 2020.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling defended the government’s strategy to improve air quality. “We are determined to deliver a green revolution in transport and reduce pollution in our towns and cities,” he said.
“We are taking bold action and want nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050 which is why we’ve committed to investing more than £600M in the development, manufacture and use of ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020.”
Although the current plan focuses on nitrogen oxide emissions with a high roadside concentration, next year the government will publish a wider reaching Clean Air Strategy.
Meanwhile WSP said that converting buildings to electric heating would bring more immediate improvements air quality in UK cities than the plan for electric vehicles. It argued it would cut emissions by 40%, which it says is a similar level to what would be achieved if all vehicles were to become electric by 2040.
WSP associate director for sustainable places Barny Evans said: “Today is an important step, but it will take a long time to improve our cities’ air quality by converting to electric vehicles. Alternatively we can phase out existing gas-heated buildings today and make all new buildings electric with no cost implication and significant health benefits. It’s not possible for everyone to go out and buy an electric car tomorrow, but we can mandate that all new buildings are only electric.”