The Government plans to ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2040. This is an important step towards clean air and reduced CO2 emissions, but 23 years is far too long to live with illegal pollution.
We urgently need practical measures that will deliver cleaner air from day one, and many local authorities are already showing what can be done.
The 2040 ban is the headline policy in the latest UK air quality plan.
Another plan? You’d be forgiven for being confused: this is one of a series of plans and consultations, in response to ClientEarth’s successful court cases, challenging the Government for failing to tackle air pollution. Last year, the Government published Clean Air Zone guidance, then a draft Clean Air Plan and now a plan for reducing NOx emissions. Another Clean Air Plan is set to follow next year.
In the meantime the focus is moving to local authorities who now have to come up with their plans to meet legal air quality standards. Once again, the Government has made charging zones, where polluting vehicles pay to enter, a last resort rather than a first choice for most councils, despite this being the most effective option. And alarmingly, the guidance suggests that measures can be lifted once air quality reaches acceptable levels. Like a binge diet, this risks air pollution rising and falling with a cycle of short term fixes: not a smart or sustainable approach.
There is some good news. £100 million for bus retrofitting is welcome, as is potential new funding for walking and cycling, but we also need action on traffic that will deliver cleaner air from day one. That means giving local authorities the go-ahead to introduce charging zones and powers to ban the most polluting vehicles from pollution hotspots.
Many councils around the country are already developing innovative policies. Nottingham’s Workplace Parking Levy has won awards. In London, Camden has piloted closing school streets at peak time, while Merton and Westminster are introducing differential parking charges.
With the Government signalling the end to cars as we know them, the need to rethink roads policy and invest in high quality public transport instead, is greater than ever.
Smart ticketing schemes are making car-free travel easier, like those now on offer in Manchester, the West Midlands and Teeside. So are travel information services like MyJourney in Southampton or green travel partnership schemes like easitReading.
Local authority actions to green bus and taxi fleets, prioritise walking and cycling, and encourage freight consolidation centres can all help. So will using the planning system to locate new homes and jobs near public transport hubs.
Electric cars are part of the solution, particularly if shared vehicles, and some areas are ahead of the game getting charging networks in place. Electrification is vital in the fight to cut CO2 emissions (which is why we want the Government to do more on rail electrification and support for e-bikes). But relying on electric cars alone won’t solve all our traffic problems: we need fewer cars not just newer cars.
One thing that won’t help is speeding up traffic.
We’ve joined forces with Living Streets and Cycling UK, and written to Environment Secretary Michael Gove, challenging the dangerous myth that removing speed bumps would do anything to help. We need to cut traffic not cut safety.
In fact, Highways England is looking at reducing motorway speed limits as part of its recent air quality strategy. While media interest has focused on technical fixes - including polytunnels that are not part of any current plan – the strategy has some sensible things to say about helping people take "informed, environmentally conscientious decisions when planning and making their journeys".
That’s the right approach to deliver the cleaner air that every community deserves.