HomePolitical leadershipA strategy to solve air inequality and keep Britain moving

A strategy to solve air inequality and keep Britain moving

leedsThis post is by Stephen Heidari-Robinson, former energy and environment adviser to David Cameron.

Unlike smog, today’s air pollution is an invisible killer: according to the Royal College of Physicians, 40,000 Britons die from it each year, twenty times the number killed in road accidents. Children are the most vulnerable: research suggests that their long term health and learning both suffer. Yet, a quarter of London school children are exposed to dangerous levels of pollution.  Deprived areas are also much more likely to experience air pollution.  This is a problem of social justice. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a particular issue.  Across the UK, NOx has fallen two thirds since 1990.  But in our cities (especially, London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Cardiff), emissions have stubbornly failed to fall.  The recent VW scandal revealed why: diesel vehicles emissions are six times what they should be.  If you are driving your kids to school in a diesel car, it is part of the problem.  In fact, you and your family will experience much more pollution within your car than if you had walked or cycled.  Of course it is not your fault: the vehicle manufacturers misled you.  And, beyond NOx, there are still other air pollution issues we do not fully understand: for example, the impact of magnetite from industrial emissions on our brains.

Legal action slows down progress
The UK government is being taken to court again by ClientEarth because current nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions (the greatest part of NOx) break EU law.  If you believe that no one in government cares about this issue (I know they do care), you might celebrate this.  Undoubtedly, the first court case drew attention to the issue.  But I think that continuing legal action is unhelpful for three reasons.  First, it focuses on compliance with EU standards for just one pollutant, rather than addressing the problem holistically to save lives.  Worse, it encourages the belief that Brexit can simply sweep away the problem (it can’t).  Second, it sets up a zero sum game – ban cars, save lives – when, to solve the problem with the consent of the population, we need to improve air quality and maintain mobility.  And, third, it scares the hell out of officials who might end up in court and diverts their attention towards feeding the legal document monster.  Neither are conducive to them coming up with imaginative solutions.  We will, of course, need to work hard to keep the issue on politicians’ minds, with all the pressures of Brexit, but campaigning and collaboration would be better than slowing down progress through continual court cases.

London faces the biggest problem.  At the last stock take of NO2 in 2013, the worst affected areas were three times the legal limit.  But London has big advantages that other cities do not: only 20 per cent of diesel emissions come from cars, so public policy decisions on buses and taxis can have significant impact; there is an effective urban transit system and public acceptance for restricting vehicle access; and there is a new, popular mayor committed to solving the problem.  None of that makes it easy.  But, it is likely to be harder for other cities, especially Birmingham and Leeds, the next most affected.  In 2013, NO2 levels were, on average, 70 mg/m3 in the worst affected areas of Birmingham and 74 in Leeds, versus the 40 mg/m3 limit.  In these two cities, diesel cars cause 40 per cent of emissions, urban transit is less well developed and people are less used to restrictions.

The government has committed to bring London within the limit by 2025 and the other cities by 2020.  Both the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra)’s published proposals and ClientEarth envisage banning or effectively pricing diesel vehicles out of cities to address the exceedance; it’s just that Defra’s proposals restrict this to commercial and public vehicles and avoid private cars.  This approach does not take into account the impact on businesses, individual freedom or the fact that pollution will be pushed onto other roads.  It would also lead to significant popular opposition once we get to the date for implementation (unhelpfully near the next election).  For example, when Network Rail attempted to impose a clean air zone around Birmingham New Street Railway Station, protests by taxi drivers and the RMT led to its removal.  Now, it is one of the most polluted places in the country.  I think we can expect taxi drivers and motorists elsewhere to react in exactly the same way, unless there is an alternative.

How to reduce pollution and maintain mobility
I propose the following plan: a shared national and local campaign, underpinned by accessible data; a long term transition away from diesel to cleaner vehicles; and – because this will not deliver soon enough – other, immediate measures.  I am going to illustrate this plan with examples from Birmingham and Leeds, as London has already been subject to numerous studies.  I have taken the maximum exceedance from the 2013 stock take (Leeds at 74 mg/m3) and reduced it by the 15 per cent fall in NO2, measured in the two Leeds air quality stations between 2013 and 2016, to come up with a worst case starting point of 63mg/m3, which is a 23mg/m3 exceedance to address.  Below is a table illustrating the plan’s potential impact by the end of 2020, based on published Defra figures for the causes of pollution.  This assumes that it would take until the middle of 2018 for these measures to be put in place and start having an impact.

Theme Measure Reduction by 2020 (mg/m3) Assumptions
Shift from diesel to cleaner vehicles Natural shift + car tax changes + ‘cash for diesel clunkers’ scheme 6.3 Diesel vehicles leave fleet after ten years rather than 13

Half of car replacements in the city are electric, hybrid or at least cleanest petrol; other half are diesel which meet limits

Clean buses, taxis, vans and lorries 7.5 Half of the buses operating in most polluted streets are electric or hydrogen

20 per cent of taxis, vans and lorries are electric, hybrid or cleanest petrol

Other, immediate measures Gas to Liquids (GTL) as drop in replacement for diesel 5.3 Remaining diesel cars, taxis, vans and lorries entering city fill up with GTL half the time

GTL has 25 per cent less NO2 emissions

Tree planting 8.1 20 per cent absorption of remaining NO2 in immediate vicinity

NB Very local impact and will not work everywhere

TOTAL 27.2

What we need is a joint central and local government marketing campaign that strikes a delicate balance: on the one hand, educating people in our cities about the dangers; on the other, explaining to them, carefully and without blame, that diesel vehicles are the problem, and that they should buy a different car next time round.

Underpinning this should be accessible data, so that if you have respiratory problems you can avoid hotspots and if you are choosing a new car you understand the consequences. The London mayor’s plan to put air quality readings outside public transport hubs is a great example that could be replicated elsewhere.  Defra should also work with telephone and technology companies to: incorporate air quality data into weather apps; use it to help plan routes in apps like Google Maps; and, in the future, build phones and apps that can measure, report and aggregate air quality information, addressing the fact that too much of our air quality data is modelled, not measured. Leeds, with its ‘smart city’ strategy, would be a great test bed. For the technology companies, there is the chance to create products that the rest of the world will also need.

Start with cities 
For the shift from diesel to cleaner vehicles, our cities are not only in most need, but also the ideal places to start.  Already, due to increased petrol efficiency and recent VED (car tax) changes, the balance has tilted away from diesel for newer, smaller cars and average distance drivers (eg, a Fiat 500 diesel costs £2,400 more than the petrol version and only £180 less per year in fuel, based on average mileage, meaning it would take over 13 years to be a better buy).  For older, bigger cars and longer distance drivers, diesel still has the edge.  But here electric and hybrid vehicles come into their own in terms of efficiency.  A Nissan Leaf costs £2,300 more than the diesel Fiat 500 up front, but £270 less per year to run for an average driver.

It would only take a small additional incentive or limited cost for entering a clean air zone to make a difference to buying decisions.  The financial lever to pull would be first year VED (road tax), as we want to influence buying decisions, and avoid excessive increases to fuel duty, which would penalise existing diesel drivers who bought their cars in good faith.  A ‘cash for diesel clunkers’ scheme, focused on the worst affected cities, would accelerate the transition.  The government and manufacturers could jointly provide a £2,000 grant to car owners to buy an electric, hybrid or, at least, a cleaner petrol car.  The additional VAT receipts would compensate for increased government spending.  More lease deals, which enable drivers to net off higher up front costs against running efficiencies would help.  Finally, we need to build out charging infrastructure in the worst affected cities.  If the charging is two way, we can use electric cars as a national battery at times of peak electricity demand, reducing the number of gas plants we need to build, and bringing in revenues for drivers.

Government should capitalise on UK expertise
In one of the horrible ironies of our energy system, half the UK’s diesel fuel is imported, mainly from Russia.  There should be no scruples in weaning ourselves off it.  However, many diesel cars are manufactured here for the UK and export.  Brexit fears are already causing automotive manufacturers to consider shifting investments to Eastern Europe.  As a part of its industrial strategy, the government should capitalise on the advantages the UK has in low emission vehicles (we currently manufacture a quarter of Europe’s total) and incentivise companies through land grants, R&D tax breaks and other means to convert their production lines from diesel to electric vehicles, expand production or move it here.  Our IT skills are another asset, as many of these cars will have autonomous capabilities.  A deal with a global battery manufacturer to site their production here would cement our advantage.  As the rest of the world is also suffering from air quality issues, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset the game versus the leading auto manufacturing nations of Germany, Japan and the US.  We can seize it, or leave it to China and others to capture the market.  We will need to ensure that we retain common standards with, and access to, the EU market, which takes 60 per cent of our car exports.

Ultimately, this transition will solve the problem, but it will take nine years to bring all cities outside London within safe NO2 levels with this measure alone.  If cities are also given powers to ensure that half of buses operating in the worst polluted streets are clean, and that 20 per cent of vans and lorries entering convert to cleaner fuels, it will bring Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Cardiff within safe levels by 2020.  But, for Leeds and Birmingham, other immediate measures are required.

One such measure would be to use a replacement for diesel.  GTL, a process of converting natural gas into much cleaner, synthetic diesel, seems the best option (whereas biofuels can increase NOx).  GTL reduces a vehicle’s NO2 emissions by five to 40 per cent depending on the engine.  It costs a few pence more per litre than diesel, but tweaks to fuel duty could address this, and any cost to the motorist could be offset against charges for entering a clean air zone.  We could replace diesel with GTL in gas stations in and just outside the city centres of Leeds and Birmingham.  A voucher against the charge could be issued when GTL is purchased (otherwise, no one would know what is in the tank).

Another measure is tree planting.Trees can also suck up NOx, as well as CO2, with studies suggesting an average reduction of seven to 30 per cent in the immediate area.  Not all streets are suitable, due to lack of space or because the trees would prevent pollution dispersing with the wind.   But, in some of the most badly polluted streets, it could have significant local impact: for example, Otley Road in Headingley, where there are two schools in one of Leeds’ most polluted areas.  Investment and effort to deliver the Conservative manifesto target of planting 11 million trees could be redirected to this purpose.

Focus on saving lives, not compliance
Finally, as the focus should be on saving lives, not proving compliance, cities should use existing planning powers to move sources of pollution away from people.  Birmingham did this by relocating its central bus stop away from the busy shopping centre to an area where people could depart quickly.  Elevating sections of road would also help dispersal of NOx.  Similarly, commercial vehicles can be restricted to early or late hours when fewer people are around.  By contrast, areas where there are no pedestrians, such as much of the Leeds inner ring road and sections of the the A38 in Birmingham, should not be the first focus.

This plan is deliverable. The exact mix of measures and their impact will differ by city and become clearer with experience.  To succeed, several factors must come together: the new Treasury, Transport and BEIS ministers have to own the agenda, developing plans to rebalance vehicle taxes and drive economic growth through electric cars; council leaders in the cities affected must treat it as a local priority; Conservative central government and Labour city councils must continue to collaborate; companies will need to bring technology and investment; and, with more awareness, consumers will need to make different buying decisions.  It’s time to move beyond impact assessments and court cases and get on with it.

[Image: Leeds traffic, courtesy of Stephen Feather from Flickr Creative Commons]


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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