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It's time to act on dirty vehicles

Former campaigner's picture

UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who joined us and our colleagues in the Healthy Air Campaign by asking MEPs to vote against watering down the vehicle emissions testing regime.

Unfortunately on 3 February, a majority of MEPs voted to accept new vehicle testing regulations that simply don't go far enough to make the car companies clean up their act. 

Dirty air kills hundreds of thousands of people across Europe each year, and tens of thousands in the UK, with transport emissions the main offender. When “diesel gate” hit global headlines, the VW emissions scandal left conventional vehicle standards in disarray. Other manufacturers are also implicated, with up to 95% of diesel vehicles on the road currently breaking air pollution limits.  The EU is taking action, but shockingly they are looking at weakening the vehicle testing framework, not strengthening it. Proposals for a new Real-world Driving Emissions (RDE) test would allow Euro 6 diesel cars to emit over double the Euro 6 limit from 2017 to 2020, and 50% more after 2020.

MEPs on the EU Environment Committee rightly rejected this shameful plan in a recent vote. But on 3 February, the EU Parliament as a whole voted to accept the proposed RDE measure.

Last April the Supreme Court ruled that the UK was in unlawful breach of air quality standards, requiring urgent action. 

The Government has now published an action plan, identifying six areas where there will be nationally coordinated Clean Air Zones (London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton) where the most polluting vehicles will be charged for entry. In other areas, local councils are expected to take the lead - at the same time as their funding is being cut.  Nationally, the aim is to achieve the reduced air pollution targets by 2020: Londoners will have to hang on to 2025.

While support for Local Air Quality Monitoring is welcome, we’re concerned that measurement across zones rather than on individual points risks giving a meaningless average rather than an accurate focus on the air pollution hotspots that are at the heart of the problem. 

In December we submitted evidence to the House of Commons Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into DEFRA’s role on air quality.  In our submission we argued that Government action should be based on:

  • Auditing existing policies - ensuring existing policy positions such as those around transport taxation, road building and land-use planning are audited and consistent with requirements to tackle air pollution
  • Spending decisions to help tackle air pollution – Planned spending in areas including public transport, walking and cycling to be designed to actively contribute to meeting air quality targets
  • Improving guidance and support to local decision makers – A national network of air quality monitoring to underpin decisions and clear guidance on land use planning and transport infrastructure to tackle air pollution.

The recent announcement of Government funding for green vehicles through the Go Ultra Low City scheme is timely. Encouraging switching away from carbon-laden petrol and dirty diesel is welcome: but while electric vehicles may be cleaner to run, that doesn’t necessarily apply to the power generated to run them.

One area of real concern is the idea that electric cars could be allowed to use bus lanes. Bus priority is vital to ease congestion and give people reliable public transport: allowing even the greenest cars to share that space will undermine bus priority and crowd out cyclists. Effectively giving petrol and diesel cars more space on the rest of the road is totally at odds with promoting cleaner vehicles. A far better way would be to extend financial incentives to go green, with tax and parking discounts for electric cars.

Nottinghamshire, Derby, Bristol, Milton Keynes and London are set to benefit from the electric car funds, with related projects in Dundee, Oxford, York and the North East. We’re keen to hear from you on how the schemes develop in practice.

Real action on transport emissions needs the Government to take a much clearer, more joined up approach. We need investment in clean, extensive bus networks; modern trains; planning policies that require new and existing development be properly connected to public transport networks; and infrastructure to support walking and cycling.