Over the last 10 years there has been a huge increase in awareness of the toxic air that many of us who live and work in towns and cities are breathing. But air pollution is a problem that stretches back far beyond the last decade.
In post war Britain, the coal that heated people’s homes and fuelled power stations and factories tended to be relatively low-grade and sulphurous. Burned in large quantities it created dense yellowish, black smog which came to be known as “pea soupers.” After a cold snap in the winter of 1952, London was subjected to the most serious of these pollution episodes. The Great Smog is estimated to have caused the deaths of 10,000 people and affected a further 200,000 in London.
The air quality crisis we are currently facing is less visible but nonetheless still harms the health of people across the country who have no choice but to breathe in illegal and harmful levels of air pollution.
There are many sources of pollution, and many pollutants, which all need dealing with. However, the main source of illegal and harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide
in our towns and cities is road transport. People are exposed to this on a daily basis. This includes drivers – studies have shown that air pollution can be up to 12 times as high inside a vehicle than outside.
We have long known about the impact of this kind of air pollution on people’s health and the evidence is growing. Successive governments have failed to take action to meet legal limits that were agreed as far back as the late 1990s and should have been met in 2010. Without urgent action, the legal limits will still be broken until at least 2028.
Faced with this refusal to tackle the problem, ClientEarth has been forced to take legal action to stand up for people’s health. Our legal pressure, the increasing scientific evidence, the Volkswagen diesel-gate scandal, and increased public awareness of the issue, means we are finally starting to see opportunities to put us on a path toward a cleaner and healthier future.
Clean Air Zones look likely across the country, with London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone to be introduced in London in April 2019.
However, while the government is keen to talk about how committed it is to tackling the problem. The UK is divided into 43 air quality zones for monitoring purposes and in 2016 37 of these areas were still in breach of legal limits for nitrogen dioxide.
It is time for serious action from government, not just more words.
The aim of the recently released
Road to Zero strategy, according to the Transport Secretary, is “Cleaner air, a better environment, zero emission vehicles, a strong clean economy. Electric vehicles were identified as part of the solution to the air pollution crisis. The investment in charging infrastructure mentioned in the strategy is welcome, and absolutely crucial to achieving this, but not enough if it is not accompanied by financial support to help individuals and businesses to replace their older vehicles with cleaner versions or even cleaner forms of transport.
A charge point on every lamppost, fuel pump and driveway in the country will not convince drivers to buy an electric vehicle while they are so much more expensive than their petrol or diesel equivalents.
In Norway last year, Electric Vehicles (EVs) made up nearly 40% of newly registered passenger cars, in the UK in the first half of 2018 they made up 2%. So, what is the reason for this difference? It simply makes financial sense in Norway to buy an EV.
Buyers do not pay import tax or VAT on plug-in cars, which makes the upfront cost thousands of pounds cheaper.
Running costs are lower because electricity is cheaper than petrol and diesel, while road tax is reduced and will drop to zero next year. Electric car owners avoid road tolls, ferry fees and low emission zone charges. What is more, parking is free and EV drivers are allowed to use selected bus lanes.
The situation in the UK is obviously very
different, given that Norway’s population of 5.2 million is a fraction of ours, but with more than 100,000 EVs in such a small country they are doing something right. We have seen some good decisions
in the UK over recent years in terms of
making EVs more affordable. Notably their exemption from VED, which was recently updated to address the nonsensical exclusion of TXEs.
The £7,500 plug-in taxi grant is important, as is the grant for passenger cars and vans, however this should be increased in the short term and continue beyond 2020.
Currently we are seeing pockets of leadership from local authorities across the country and in certain business sectors, including the taxi trade, where there is a commitment to zero emission vehicles now, not in five, 10 or 22 years.
What we need now is leadership from the Government to support those who are making the right decision. ClientEarth will continue to put pressure on the Government to make sure they do just that.