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Air Quality Plan: Cleaning up UK transport

•  New air quality plan takes on diesel, petrol engines
•  Good starting point, says transport expert
•  Low-carbon transition needs careful planning

The UK Government has recently published its amended air quality plan – with the proposal to stop the sale of all new diesel, petrol and some hybrid cars by 2040 grabbing the headlines. It follows a recent move in France to do the same. Alongside, the 2040 target there are proposals for local authorities to do more to promote clean air.

The plan has had a somewhat mixed reception, with green campaigners suggesting it doesn’t go far enough. It may yet be legally challenged, as it has been previously.

Jacob Roberts, ESTBut Energy Saving Trust Technical Project Manager Jacob Roberts (pictured) thinks it’s a key starting point in encouraging a transport transformation. 

He said: “It is a positive step. Whilst many may comment that the plan could have gone further, this level of commitment was something that was missing. It provides some degree of certainty and means that manufacturers, fleets, local authorities and consumers can more confidently plan for the future.”

A busy 23 years ahead

While it’s clear that action is needed right now to improve the air quality of the UK’s towns and cities, Jacob doesn’t think that the 2040 date should be seen as either too far off, or too unrealistic.

He explained: “A ban on purchasing what most would regard as ‘normal’ vehicles might worry motorists, but 2040 is 23 years away. New models of electric vehicle (EV) are coming onto the market all the time and manufacturers are beginning to come out and commit to the technology. They are getting cheaper, their ranges are improving and they are recharging faster. The charging infrastructure network does still need to improve, but there a lot of positive moves on that already underway, with funding available to individuals, businesses and local government.”

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Making the move to electric

The strategy emphasises the importance of a move to ultra-low emissions vehicles (ULEVs), which include electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen vehicles. A big market shift is coming, but Jacob thinks there are still key factors which lead people to have reservations.

He explained: “Up-front cost is still one of the main issues to overcome. When priced competitively, we have seen that ULEVs generate a lot of sales. An example here is the plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander. It is priced competitively in the SUV class, which is certainly one of the reasons why it has been the best-selling ULEV for some time.

“Manufacturers are saying that, by 2020, small electric vehicles could be the same price as a petrol or diesel equivalent. And from the day they purchase the vehicle, motorists will start saving money on fuel. At that point, so long as you don’t want to drive from one end of the country to the other every day, an electric vehicle should be a compelling option.”

A fleet transition to low-carbon?

The 2040 target means business and organisation fleets will have to start moving away from internal combustion engine vehicles. Jacob thinks they’ll be positive about the latest move in the drawn-out story of the new clean air policy. 

He said: “Those in charge of fleets have been looking for more certainty in order to be confident in their medium and long-term plans. With the 2040 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel, there is now some certainty, although more can be done to improve the levels of certainty in the short-term and on the local level.

“There will also be some remaining uncertainty around heavy vehicles, where there are no feasible electric alternatives currently on the market. Suggestions are that this will soon change, and mainstream manufactures will be launching electric 3.5-tonne vans and larger vehicles from 2018, with many being trialled on our roads already.”

A grapple with the grid

The electricity network needs to be up to the challenge of a much greater volume of ULEVs on the road. Is it ready yet? Jacob thinks that technology could play a major role in addressing any issues.

He said: “Smart technology is how people think we will overcome such problems. There’s a lot of investigation into vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies, where if your electric car or van is plugged in at times of high electricity demand, you could be paid to supply electricity back to the grid. The government has recently announced £20m of funding to explore this concept further.

“Of course, technology will soften the potential impact of more plug-in vehicles, but the grid itself will require a lot of infrastructure work to cope with the extra demand. This is especially the case in dense urban areas, where there are likely to be the most electric vehicles and there is already high electricity demand.”

UK air pollution

No more charging zones?

Aside from the national-level ban envisaged for 2040, the responsibility for more near-term action under the new proposals rests predominantly with local authorities. But one of the criticisms levelled at the plans is the lack of commitment to new schemes along the lines of London’s congestion charge.

Jacob said: “The plan has moved away from more charging zones to a focus on the UK’s 81 most polluted roads, requiring local authority intervention. You could think of this as a more precise intervention and there is rationality behind that.

“It is worth noting that the government’s own research has indicated that charging zones are the most effective way to reduce urban air pollution. However, you have to balance that against the disruption they cause to motorists and the difficulty inherent in implementing and enforcing them. On top of that, nobody wants to punish motorists for an air pollution crisis which one could easily argue is not their fault. This may then be why charging zones are being seen as a last resort in the air quality plan."

The story of the quest for clean air may not be quite over yet, but there is now a very public statement reinforcing the direction UK transport will be travelling over the coming years. 

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or tweet us @EnergySvgTrust.

Jacob Roberts is the Energy Saving Trust's Technical Project Manager within our expert Transport team.

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