Damian CarringtonEnvironment editor
Friday 5 May 2017 15.46 BST
The government’s new plan to tackle the UK’s toxic air crisis is “much weaker than hoped for”, according to the environmental lawyers that forced ministers to deliver the proposals.
James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, said the government was “passing the buck” to local authorities and said he failed to see how the central proposal – clean air zones for urban areas – would be effective without charges to deter the most polluting vehicles.
Ministers were forced to act after a series of humiliating defeats in the courts, which ruled previous plans illegal. ClientEarth is now examining the latest plan and could go back to court again if it decides the measures will not reduce illegal levels of air pollution in the “shortest possible time”, as the law demands.
“The plan looks much weaker than we had hoped for,” said Thornton. “The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.”
“There needs to be a national network of clean air zones which prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most illegally polluted streets in our towns and cities,” he said. “We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones proposed by the government will be effective. The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency.”
Thornton also criticised the government for failing to commit to a diesel scrappage scheme, saying this is crucial in persuading motorists to move to cleaner vehicles.
The consultation documents contain few concrete proposals and do not specify the cities and towns where polluting vehicles might face charges, the level of any charges or the scope or value of any scrappage scheme.
Instead, the plan puts the onus for action on local authorities: “Local authorities are already responsible for improving air quality in their area, but will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist.”
Analysis in the documents show increasing the number of clean air zones (CAZ) from the current six planned to 27 would make by far the greatest impact in cutting pollution and provide cost benefits of over £1bn. The CAZ policy would cut more than 1,000 times more NO2 than a scrappage scheme, even if that scheme requires old diesels to be replaced by electric cars.
But the plan requires local authorities to exhaust all other options before introducing CAZ charging for diesel vehicles, as will happen in London, such as removing speed bumps and retrofitting buses. But many experts back charging as the only effective option.
The new plan cites funding for electric taxis and hydrogen vehicles that had already been announced and commits only to “exploring” vehicle tax changes to incentivise cleaner cars and lorries. The documents also say the government “will engage with vehicle manufacturers on what role they might play in helping to improve air quality”. However, even new diesel cars produce far more NO2 on the road than in official regulatory tests.
“This is not a plan, it’s a cop-out,” said Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary. “The Conservative government is shamefully failing in its duty to tackle deadly pollution that is claiming thousands of lives a year.”
Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, said: “The government is standing idly by while Britain chokes. This feeble plan won’t go anywhere near far enough in tackling this public health emergency.”
However, car manufacturers found ways to circumvent the rules and across the industry produced vehicles that emit far more NO2 on the road than in the official lab-based tests. Transport campaigners argue that, as in Germany and France, car makers should be forced to pay for upgrades to their vehicles to cut pollution.