Clean air gives way to hot air

Air quality is one of the biggest climate emergencies of our time – and the government’s response has been sorely lacking, writes Alan Whitehead MP

It really has not been third time lucky for the government in its increasingly desperate attempts to introduce an air quality strategy that tackles the United Kingdom’s continued breach of nitrogen oxide levels in cities without actually doing anything directly to tackle the  causes of the breaches.

The latest version of a plan, the third to be produced over the last two years, arises largely because the government has been forced by court action to produce new plans – but this one does not seem to get any nearer to the central issue of how Britain is going to make some rapid progress in lowering emissions in city centres. And, as something of an aside, there is a casual mention, over three lines in a 98 page report, that ‘the government will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040’. This mention, itself a rerun of an obscure line in the 2011 low carbon plan, has grabbed the headlines and diverted eyes away from the report itself, which actually proposes nothing new over and above what is in previous reports, and largely kicks the can down the road while local authorities are required to grapple with the actual issues in the report, bereft of any overall government supportive legislative or financial action.

The mention of the ending of the sale of ‘conventional’ vehicles by 2040 of course, has nothing to do with the task in hand, which is to get NOx pollution levels down soon, and by concrete and definable means. It will have no effect on cutting emissions now or in the near future, and in any event sets up rather a puzzle not resolved by the extreme brevity of its mention in the report.  What does Michael Gove mean by ‘conventional’?  As it stands, it looks like any petrol or diesel vehicle that has any additional technology attached to it, (such as any form of hybridization) will be just fine after 2040: the internal combustion engine whether petrol or diesel will not be withdrawn from sale, a position which, by the way, is a retreat from what was said in the 2011 plan.

What we need here is more than a little clarity: are we serious about phasing out petrol and diesel cars unequivocally (i.e. near zero carbon emissions) and if so by when? Why not by an earlier date, as some countries such as France have already talked about?  It is only clear in one way, and that is that it has clearly diverted people away from examining the actual report, and indeed its predecessors. For in those reports, it is clear that the quickest way to cut down on air pollution would be to establish, perhaps by government-led action, a network of clean air zones allied with charging schemes. Gove’s latest effort steers us away from that imperative: instead he requires local authorities to think up ‘imaginative’ schemes which are not clean air zones and then tell him about them, at which point some funds might be available.

There remain only the five local authorities – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton (penciled in for urgent action because of their EU standard-infracting levels of NOx) required now to go ahead within eighteen months with clean air zones and charging regimes. Such clean air zones may well be important and central in the fight by those local authorities for local clean air local authorities, but hardly constitute the wide-ranging national battle against air pollution levels that we should expect. Doing that, of course, would require some government leadership, some legislation, and some money. None of those are present in the new plan, which to summarise, requires someone else to do the work, preferably fairly slowly, and, ideally using their own resources. Not a very inspiring way to treat one of the big climate emergencies of our time.

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Alan Whitehead is member of parliament for Southampton Test. He tweets at @alanwhiteheadmp

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