The UK’s continuing failure to meet air quality targets, which led to Government court battles with NGOs in the last Parliament, has raised public awareness of and concerns about the harm to our health from air pollution.

These concerns were exacerbated after the ‘dieselgate’ scandal, the decision about airport capacity expansion in the South East, and the Government losing a third court case.

The current approach to the problem involves a combination of road charges, ‘clean air’ zones, and encouraging cleaner vehicles. But is this enough?

What are the concerns about air pollution?

The previous Government’s new Air Quality Plan (AQP) for NO2 (May 2017) acknowledged poor air quality as the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that the annual cost of health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution in the UK exceeds £20 billion. This includes costs to society and business, health services and individuals who are affected.

Under EU legislation, Member States must meet air quality targets for a range of pollutants. The deadline for NO2 was extendable to 2015, as long as an adequate plan was in place and the exceedance period was “kept as short as possible”. However, several countries including the UK have failed to achieve this. Currently many areas in the UK do not meet the NO2 targets, especially roadsides in urban centres.

Roughly 1/3 of Nitrogen Oxide emissions come from road transport

Why is this still a problem?

Roughly a third of nitrogen oxide emissions come from road transport, and levels have remained flat since 2011, despite stricter emissions standards for all vehicles. Older diesel vehicles are significant contributors but not the only cause, as became evident during the ‘dieselgate’ scandal.

In 2015 the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice alleging that Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars from model years 2009–2015 included software that circumvented emissions standards for certain air pollutants (so-called ‘defeat devices’) in diesel cars. VW admitted that this software affected nearly 1.2 million UK-registered vehicles. Other manufacturers have also since been implicated.

This led to a worldwide trail of inquiries looking into ‘real world’ emissions from vehicles across several brands. The best analysis of typical VW cars in real-world driving conditions found NOx emissions of around 0.6g/km, over three times higher than the latest Euro 6 standard of 0.18g/km.

Diesel vehicle owners were angry at the manufacturers’ deception and at governments that had encouraged the buying of diesel vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. They are also likely to be amongst those most affected by measures to address the problem. Recent months have seen further falls in new diesel registrations.

Car registrations by fuel type

What could the Government do?

The UK Government has responsibility for implementing a National Air Quality Strategy and an AQP for NO2. The Courts have twice ruled the existing AQP inadequate, and the Government was ordered to consult on a third version by May 2017 and publish it by July. This draft AQP and consultation have been criticised for lacking detail and delegating action to local authorities. As a result a further legal challenge has been launched.

There are three main options for tackling air pollution from road vehicles: a diesel scrappage scheme and retrofitting, taxes and charges, including clean air zones, and low emission vehicles.

Diesel scrappage and retrofitting: owners of diesel vehicles would receive a financial incentive to ‘scrap’ their vehicle and replace it with a less polluting alternative. The draft AQP does not advocate a scrappage scheme, but the accompanying consultation seeks views on the viability of such a scheme. There may also be some sort of financial assistance for diesel owners to ‘retrofit’ their vehicles so that they emit less NO2.

Taxes and charges: local authorities already have powers to limit – and charge for – vehicle access to urban areas. These charges can be varied depending on vehicle age and/or emission levels. In 2008 London introduced an emissions-based charge zone, which consecutive mayors have supported and sought to extend. Some London councils have already begun to trial higher parking charges for diesel vehicles in certain areas. Another option would be to raise fuel duty on diesel or the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED, or car tax) on diesel vehicles.

Low emission vehicles: the Government and local authorities are seeking to decarbonise the road transport fleet by providing financial incentives for the uptake of electric vehicles; supporting R&D for hydrogen and autonomous vehicles; and switching to sustainably fuelled buses and taxis in urban areas.

Whilst the Government stated its commitment to tackling air pollution, the UK’s future approach may be shaped by the decision to leave the EU. In March 2017 four select committees launched an unprecedented joint inquiry on air quality to scrutinise cross-departmental plans to tackle urban pollution hotspots. The General Election halted this inquiry and it will be for the 2017 Parliament to decide whether to revive it.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: Pollution Audi A3 by Pittou2. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)

Health Impacts

Short term poor air quality can cause respiratory symptoms such
as wheeze and cough, and exacerbate pre-existing conditions
such as asthma. These can lead to an increase in hospital admissions and deaths for those affected.

Long term exposure to air pollution can contribute to the development of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease. Potential wide-ranging associations between air pollution and health are the subject of ongoing research, including in relation to diabetes and dementia. Particularly vulnerable groups are children and the elderly.