Damian CarringtonEnvironment editor
Wednesday 26 July 2017 15.29 BST
What a beautiful smokescreen. A UK ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 conjures up the clean, green vision of an all-electric future and is absolutely the right thing to tackle climate change – emissions from transport are high and not falling.
But for the public health emergency of today, with most urban areas already having suffered illegal levels of air pollution for years, it does nothing at all.
Ministers call toxic air “the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK” which causes “unnecessary and avoidable” damage – 40,000 early deaths a year. They even echo the legal obligation they have repeatedly failed to fulfil by pledging to take action in the “shortest possible time”.
Yet the killer measure to cut air pollution that shines like a beacon through the smog – charging or banning dirty cars entering city and town centres – is relegated to the option of last resort in new court-ordered plans released on Wednesday. The responsibility of implementing these Clean Air Zones (CAZs) is also dumped on to councils, aiming to divert the flak from angry motorists towards town halls.
Ministers know CAZs are the best option by miles: their own analysis shows they are 60 times more effective than a scrappage scheme, and bring net benefits in the billions. In the government’s judgement, hidden in the new plan’s documentation, they are the “quickest, most cost-effective way” to tackle the problem.
The government is already mandating CAZs in Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton, with London is getting one too. The millions of pollution-choked people living everywhere else will rightly ask why ministers refuse to do the same for them. If designed with the right exemptions, there is no reason for pollution charges be regressive.
But ministers fear the “war on diesel” invective of some motorist lobby groups, having themselves stoked that anger by blaming the last Labour government for mis-selling diesel as the green option. But Conservative-led governments continued the tax breaks for diesel and there is no mention of any changes in the new strategy, though it hints at tweaks in the autumn.
The true villains, who ministers are letting off scot-free, are the carmakers who cheated and dodged the emissions regulations that would have kept air pollution in check. In a remarkable act of slamming the garage door after the filthy car has bolted, ministers have suggested new laws to penalise cheating manufacturers.
The scrappage scheme that might assuage diesel drivers will give an entirely undeserved boost to car sales, while barely denting pollution. It’s also the worst-value option of all those the government considered. Worse, the scheme won’t even be put forward till the autumn – so much for “shortest time possible”.
The new air pollution strategy in not entirely hot air. The second most effective action is retrofitting buses, HGVs and black cabs and the ministers are putting a total of £266m into this, though all the money had already been announced. A possible £1.2bn to encourage cycling and walking will also be money well spent but is also old news.