Michael Gove’s pledge to ban new petrol and diesel cars in 23 years is not enough to tackle health crisis now, say campaigners
July 26, 2017 — The government’s new clean air plan has been branded inadequate by the leaders of eight heavily polluted cities, as campaigners said banning petrol and diesel cars from 2040 would not help the thousands dying each year from illnesses linked to toxic fumes.
The long-awaited report was published by Michael Gove, the environment secretary, on Wednesday, after a court ruled last year that the government must improve its proposals for tackling illegal levels of pollution.
It confirmed conventional petrol and diesel cars would be banned in 23 years but the government refused to legislate for more “clean air zones” that would charge the dirtiest vehicles to enter some of the UK’s most polluted cities.
The plan also stopped short of bringing in a scrappage scheme to encourage people to give up diesel cars, considering only a “targeted” version to incentivise some some groups of people on low incomes or in particularly polluted areas.
In a letter to Gove, the leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Leicester and Oxford city councils called for urgent legislation and a proper diesel scrappage scheme, saying the long-awaited air quality plan would not enable them to keep to their legal limits on pollution.
The city leaders said the “updated clean air plan, while indicating long-term ambition, still lacks some specific actions that would enable us to meet the legal limits and establish safer air sooner rather than later”.
The criticism means the government could face further legal action to force it to produce a more comprehensive plan, with environmentalists, doctors and opposition politicians arguing it is insufficient to deal with a “health emergency” estimated to be killing 40,000 people a year.
Some energy experts also warned that a wholesale switch from
conventional to electric cars could put the National Grid under huge pressure and require many new power stations.
ClientEarth, the environmental lawyers that previously took the government to court, said it appeared to be “little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans and is underwhelming and lacking in urgency”.
“The court ordered action by the UK to obey its own laws as soon as possible. This plan kicks the can down the road yet again,” said James Thornton, chief executive of the firm. “The 2040 diesel and petrol ban, while important is a diversionary tactic and doesn’t deal with the public health emergency caused by illegally polluted air, now.”
Ministers had been urged to introduce charges for vehicles to enter a series of clean air zones (CAZs) in new cities, adding to existing plans for such measures in Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton, and London.
But the government said it only wants new charging zones to be considered as a last resort, despite its own research showing that such clean air zones are the “quickest, most cost-effective way” to tackle the problem.
It named 80 A-roads and motorways with particularly poor air quality but said councils should exhaust other options before opting to impose charging, and restrictions should be time-limited and lifted as soon as pollution is within legal limits.
Instead, most councils will be given money from a £250m pot to tackle pollution hotspots with “surgical interventions” such as improving public transport and changing road layouts. Labour said the government was “shunting the problem on to local authorities”, which have 18 months to submit their plans for action.
In their letter to Gove, six councils warned that some of these suggestions for surgical interventions risk “displacing the problem elsewhere in our cities rather than solving it …. and they could also increase traffic and congestion”.
“Only national backing of local action, in law and in resources, will enable us to tackle this crisis effectively,” they said.
Another council, Sheffield, called the report “woefully inadequate”, with Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport, saying he was “highly sceptical that the government’s announcement today even meets their legal duties on air quality”.
Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, also joined in the criticism saying the ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2040 was a “half-hearted commitment” that Londoners cannot afford to wait for.
This was echoed by Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader and energy secretary, who said he feared the new ban in 23 years’ time was a “smokescreen for weak measures to tackle 40,000 deaths a year from air pollution now”.
Gove had also been pressed to bring in a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, but the final document only said the government would consider a limited programme to incentivise drivers to switch the most polluting cars for cleaner vehicles.
This would be directed at those who most need support, such as those on lower incomes or those living in the immediate vicinity of a clean air zone. It sounded a negative tone about the idea, saying previous schemes have been “poor value for the taxpayer and open to a degree of fraud”.
The report’s flagship measure was a pledge to ban new sales of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040, but this did not go as far as expected because hybrid car sales would still be allowed. Previously, the government had said 2050 emissions targets required “almost all new cars and vans sold to be near-zero emission at the tailpipe by 2040”.
Senior doctors specialising in child health expressed dismay at the failure to take more decisive action. Prof Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was “indisputable evidence demonstrating the tragic effects it has on the development of the lungs and hearts of children”.
“Having been told [by the courts] to go back to the drawing board so many times, that the government’s final air quality plan still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable,” she said.
Prof Jonathan Grigg, from Barts and the London school of medicine and dentistry, also said more urgent action was needed.
“The 2040 target means that several generations of children will suffer the long term consequences of inhaling sooty particles and oxides of nitrogen,” he said. “The government needs to act now, with a faster and more robust response to this public health emergency.”
Industry figures criticised the lack of detail and Mike Cherry, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said it “still leaves many small businesses in the dark, particularly regarding any potential diesel scrappage scheme”.
Others were concerned about jobs when conventional cars are phased out. Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, said nothing should be done to jeopardise the “hard won” success of the car industry, adding: “The announcement has wide-ranging implications for the UK economy and future employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. We are calling for a national debate embracing employers, unions and ministers.”
Mike Hawes, the boss of car industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said it was crucial that the government supported the development of electric car technologies and attracted the major battery manufacturers to the UK to prevent the industry, which supports 814,000 jobs, from being damaged.
Environmental groups also reacted with disappointment. Friends of the Earth, the green charity, said it was a cynical move for the government to grab headlines with the eye catching promise to ban new diesel cars in future, when there is little in the plan to deal with immediate problems.
The plan was described as gimmicky by Areeba Hamid, a clean air campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “While this plan makes the right headline-grabbing noises, in reality it means that children across the UK will continue to be exposed to harmful air pollution for years to come, with potentially irreversible impacts,” she said. “The government cannot shy away any longer from the issue of diesel cars clogging up and polluting our cities, and must now provide real solutions, not just gimmicks.”
Opposition parties criticised the plan for failing to go far enough and highlighted the weakness of proposals to deal with air quality in the short and medium term.
Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, said there had already been “seven years of illegal air pollution under this Conservative government, who have only acted after being dragged through the courts”.
“Despite the scale of the problem of illegal air pollution, we are presented today with further consultations and delays, a squeamish attitude to clean air zones, shunting the problem on to local authorities and no detail about how the government’s 2040 target will be achieved,” she said. “With nearly 40 million people living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, action is needed now, not in 23 years’ time.”
The plan was defended by Gove, who said it “sets out how we will work with local authorities to tackle the effects of roadside pollution caused by dirty diesels, in particular nitrogen dioxide”.
“This is one element of the government’s £3bn programme to clean up the air and reduce vehicle emissions,” he said.