Government’s air quality plan to ban new diesel and petrol cars from 2040

The government has announced that new diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2040 to help improve air quality and tackle air pollution. Ministers have also unveiled a £255m fund to help councils tackle emissions, including allowing for charging zones for the dirtiest vehicles, but campaigners and opposition politicians said the measures were cynical headline grabbing. 

The £3bn clean air strategy does not include a vehicle scrappage scheme, as the government believes that they are poor value for money. Campaigners have welcomed the measures but say that they do not go far enough.

The report, which favours electric cars, was released after the government was ordered by the courts to produce its plans to tackle illegal levels of the harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide. Judges also agreed with environmental campaigners who said that previous plans were not compliant with EU pollution limits.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said the government would set aside more than £200m to enable local authorities to draw up plans to tackle roads with high pollution. Speaking to the BBC, Gove said he wanted to see local authorities come up with “imaginative solutions to these proposals”.

Asked whether he thought that drivers of polluting vehicles could face charges, Gove said: “I don't believe that it is necessary but we will work with local authorities in order to determine what the best approach is”. The range of local measures to tackle pollution could include retrofitting buses and other transport to make them cleaner, altering road layouts and measures such as speed humps and also re-programming traffic lights to make vehicle-flow smoother.

Matthew Farrow, executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission, said: “There is an element of Groundhog Day reading yet another government air quality plan but the latest version does contain some welcome elements. A willingness to make changes to vehicle emissions duty (as recommended by EIC) to fund additional support for local authorities makes sense, as does the ongoing commitment to rolling out Clean Air Zones (CAZs) and supporting retrofitting of older buses which our 2015 report showed is a cost-effective option. There is also a belated sense of urgency by requiring the 29 local authorities with significant NO2 exceedences to come up with action plans in a quicker period.

“It is though disingenuous of government to suggest that charging in CAZs should be avoided if possible when it is likely that it will be the quickest route to compliance for many local authorities and therefore presumably a legal obligation for them. Nonetheless EIC members will work with local authorities across the Clean Air Zones to support them in delivering clean air.”

While banning new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 clearly points towards a future of electric vehicle usage, the industry response to the government’s proposals has been somewhat lukewarm. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes said that although the demand for alternatively fuelled vehicles was growing, it was still at a very low level. “The industry instead wants a positive approach which gives consumers incentives to purchase these cars. We could undermine the UK’s successful automotive sector if we don't allow enough time for the industry to adjust,” Hawes said.

Striking a pessimistic tone, the AA said that significant investment would be needed to install charging points across the country for electric vehicles and warned that the National Grid would be in danger of meltdown with a mass switch-on of recharging after the rush hour. 

Nevertheless it is clear that following the government’s announcement the direction of travel is firmly in favour of alternatively fuelled vehicles. Earlier this month, French president Emmanuel Macron announced plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars there from 2040 and BMW has just announced that it will build a fully electric version of the Mini at its Cowley plant in Oxford from 2019. The Swedish carmaker Volvo has already said that all its new models will have an electric motor from the same year.

While the petrol and diesel car ban has attracted most of the headlines, clean air campaigners and politicians say that the government is using the 2040 electric cars announcement as a smokescreen to distract from failings in the government’s short-term pollution policy.

Chief executive of environmental law firm ClientEarth James Thornton said that he wanted to see more details on the government’s proposals and stressed that the courts had found that ministers must bring down illegal levels of air pollution as soon as possible. 

Green Party joint leader Caroline Lucas welcomed the vehicle ban from 2040 but said it did not go “nearly far enough or fast enough”. Friends of the Earth called the plan a “cynical move” which only passed the buck of saving lives to local authorities. Labour said that the government was only acting after being taken to court. Shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Sue Hayman, criticised the government for being less than enthusiastic about clear air zones and said ministers were just shunting the problem on to local authorities.

“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 onto local authorities and no detail about how the Government’s 2040 target will be achieved," said Hayman. She added that a Labour government would introduce a new Clean Air Act.

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