UK Air Quality Plan

On the 5th May the Government published a Revised Air Quality Plan to tackle NOX emissions, in response to breaches of EU legal limits. London Mayor Sadiq Khan promptly slammed it in the Evening Standard as being “woefully inadequate”. He argued it was a public health emergency and criticised the Government for being unwilling to take bold action. He is of course moving aggressively forward himself with the ULEZ plans.

What does the Government’s document actually say? It correctly argues that air pollution can come from a range of different sources, not just transport. However as regards NOX it does exceed legal limits on some roads and diesel vehicles are one of the main causes. It points out that although emissions have been falling, driven by Euro Standards for new vehicles, these measures were side-stepped by the fact that “real world” emissions did not match the test figures. In some cases, e.g. Volkswagen, they were deliberately manipulated to give erroneous data for diesel emissions. This is why there is still a major problem with diesel vehicles and high air pollution.

As it says: “None of this is the fault of those who chose to buy diesel vehicles and as we tackle this problem, these same people should not be penalised for decisions they made in good faith”. Mr Khan is ignoring that though.

The Government is committed to provide incentives and the adoption of policies that will clean up the vehicle fleet. It also argues that as air pollution is often a localized problem one approach should be the introduction of Clean Air Zones that could introduce control of the worst polluting vehicles (in essence HGVs and buses). They also want to encourage the take up of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (e.g. electric ones).

One measure they suggest would help in addition to generally improving and smoothing traffic flows, might be the removal of road humps. Now that would be a great step forward so far as this writer is concerned – I have repeatedly campaigned against them for the last twenty years. They have no real road safety benefits if you take into account traffic diversion while they have a number of disbenefits – increased air pollution is one well known aspect.

The Government argues that Clean Air Zones should only include charging arrangements where there is no other alternative – again Mr Khan is not taking much notice of this.

The Government mentions the possibility of a diesel vehicle scrappage scheme but suggests that it would need to be closely targeted, limited in scope, provide value for money and minimise the risk of fraud. Author’s comments: Somehow I don’t think my 4 year old diesel Jaguar XF is going to be covered under any such scheme. And I won’t be able to claim dire poverty or some other excuse for a Government subsidy. So I might have a very hefty bill to replace it well before I otherwise would due to the ULEZ impact.

Motor manufacturers welcomed the Government’s proposals – perhaps because they see the opportunity to sell more vehicles to those being forced to replace them. Others were more critical and an RAC spokesperson said it possibly gave the green light to enable lots of local authorities to introduce charging schemes.

In summary, it seems diesel vehicles will be discouraged by higher taxation and discouraged in other ways also. The day of the all electric vehicle is surely coming closer, while even petrol car sales may start to decline.

Roger Lawson

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Air Pollution, Oxford Street Buses and Nanoparticles

The Government wished to delay publication of its revised UK Air Quality Plan until after the General Election but after a legal challenge it was forced to publish it. See https://consult.defra.gov.uk/airquality/air-quality-plan-for-tackling-nitrogen-dioxide/ on how the Government plans to improve nitrogen dioxide emissions in particular.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan promptly slammed the proposals as “woefully inadequate” before he could have barely had time to read the full document (air pollution is a technically complex matter and it is necessary to read the whole document and the supporting evidence). In the Evening Standard he said: “I welcome that the government has agreed to consult on introducing a targeted diesel scrappage fund, as I have modelled, to help drivers who bought diesel vehicles in good faith. However, the government has failed to give a firm commitment and, even if it goes ahead, this alone would go nowhere near fixing the problem. City Hall analysis shows that the proposals still mean air quality will be at illegal levels until at least 2026.”

I will provide further and more considered comments on the proposals at a later date.

Meanwhile I am still awaiting a response to my FOI Request on the ULEZ proposals so as to enable a properly considered response to be made to that. It should arrive by the 10th May, but we will see.

In the meantime Transport for London (TfL) has taken steps to reduce pollution on Oxford Street (which is one of the worst locations in London) by introducing proposals to cut the number of buses by 40%. TfL says bus numbers can be reduced because of higher underground frequencies and the new Crossrail service which will open in December 2018. The consultation is present here:

https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/roads/oxford-street/?cid=oxford-street . Comments: it is undoubtedly the case that the number of buses on Oxford Street not only makes it a very unpleasant street for pedestrians but also creates road safety dangers. Current diesel buses are of course some of the worse emitters of air pollution. Whether the proposals will improve matters substantially is not at all clear.

Another step to improve air pollution in London is the introduction of rapid electric vehicle charging points. TfL has appointed five suppliers to build such a network. These charge points can recharge a vehicle battery in 30 minutes and the plan is to have 300 installed by 2020, although some will be dedicated for use by taxis. All new London taxis must be zero-emission by January 2018.

The latest environmental scare story is the impact of nanoparticles on human health. An article in the New Scientist reported that these microscopic particles can enter the blood stream and they can remain there for over 3 months. The impact they have on health was unknown but the hypothesis given was that they could be having a major impact. In effect the article suggested that we might need to worry not so much about Nitrous Oxides or larger particulates, but about nanoparticles from vehicle pollution.

Nanoparticles are quite difficult to detect, but it is known that they are present everywhere. Indeed normal activities in the home, business activities and certainly industrial activities give off large amounts of nanoparticles which are simply invisible.

A very interesting article in the Financial Times on the 29th April explained how our homes can actually be one of the most polluted locations, often worse than the air outside even in the worst polluted cities. It said “A study published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2012 showed that concentrations of some air pollutants can be up to five times higher indoors than outdoors“. As we spend 90% of our time indoors, versus 10% outdoors, this is of concern. Cooking on gas, food cooking emissions, dog hairs, dead skin particles, lint particles from tumble dryers, deodorant sprays  and scented candles were all named as culprits. Log burning stoves are a particular problem which have become popular even in London of late. The solution is apparently to purchase an electric air purifier.

In summary, pollution is everywhere and always has been. Even green fields and trees can be a menace because of pollens and dust. Indeed I do recall reading a study many years ago that showed the prevalence of asthma was more common in rural areas than in cities.

So it’s easy to become paranoid about air pollution. It’s necessary to separate fact from fiction so that the picture is clear about which pollutants are of real concern and which are not. Otherwise we will get lost in a fog of hysteria.

Roger Lawson