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UK government publishes plans to tackle roadside NO2 concentrations

The UK Government has confirmed that it will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as it unveiled new plans to tackle air pollution. The announcement is focused on delivering nitrogen dioxide (NO2) compliance at the roadside in the shortest amount of time – next year the government will publish a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy which will address other sources of air pollution.

A busy street in central London. According to the UK government, evidence shows that poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, costing the country up to GBP 2.7 billion in lost productivity in 2012. The UK is one of 17 European Union (EU) countries breaching annual targets for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a problem which has been made worse by the failure of the European testing regime for vehicle emissions.

Released July 26, The UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations produced by Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport outlines how councils with the worst levels of air pollution at busy road junctions and hotspots must take robust action.

Improving air quality is about more than just transport, so next year we will publish a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy. This will set out how we will address all forms of air pollution, delivering clean air for the whole country. Today’s plan sets out how we will work with local authorities to tackle the effects of roadside pollution caused by dirty diesels, in particular, nitrogen dioxide. This is one element of the government’s GBP 3 billion programme to clean up the air and reduce vehicle emissions, said Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Air quality improving

Air quality in the UK has been improving significantly in recent decades, with reductions in emissions of all of the key pollutants, and NO2 levels down by half in the last 15 years. Despite this, an analysis of over 1 800 of Britain’s major roads shows that a small number of these – 81 or 4 percent – are due to breach legal pollution limits for NO2, with 33 of these outside of London.

Due to the highly localised nature of the problem local knowledge will be crucial in solving pollution problems in these hotspots. The government will require councils to produce local air quality plans which reduce NO2 levels in the fastest possible time.

To accelerate action local areas will be asked to produce initial plans within eight months and final plans by the end of next year. The government will help towns and cities by providing GBP 255 million to implement their plans, in addition to the GBP 2.7 billion already committed.

Local authorities will be able to bid for money from a new Clean Air Fund to support improvements which will reduce the need for restrictions on polluting vehicles. This could include changing road layouts, removing traffic lights and speed humps, or upgrading bus fleets.

The government will also issue a consultation in the autumn to gather views on measures to support motorists, residents and businesses affected by local plans – such as retrofitting, subsidised car club memberships, exemptions from any vehicles restrictions, or a targeted scrappage scheme for car and van drivers. Measures considered will need to target those most in need of support, provide strong value for the taxpayer and be resistant to fraud.

We are determined to deliver a green revolution in transport and reduce pollution in our towns and cities. We are taking bold action and want nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050 which is why we’ve committed to investing more than GBP 600 million in the development, manufacture and use of ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020. Today we commit GBP 100 million towards new low emission buses and retrofitting older buses with cleaner engines, said Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

Empower local authorities

Local authorities will have access to a range of options to tackle poor air quality in their plans such as changing road layouts to reduce congestion, encouraging uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles and retrofitting public transport. If these measures are not sufficient to ensure legal compliance, local authorities may also need to consider restrictions on polluting vehicles using affected roads.

This could mean preventing polluting vehicles using some of these roads at certain times of the day or introducing charging, as the Mayor of London has already announced. However, the government is clear that local authorities should exhaust other options before opting to impose charging. Any restrictions or charging on polluting vehicles should be time-limited and lifted as soon as air pollution is within legal limits and the risk of future breaches has passed.

Plans will be assessed by government to make sure they are effective, fair, good value and will deliver the required improvements in air quality in the shortest time possible. If local plans do not meet that test, government will require councils to take action to achieve legal compliance.

The government is supporting councils to develop these plans through:

  • A GBP 255 million implementation fund for all immediate work required to deliver plans within eight months to address poor air quality in the shortest time possible;
  • A Clean Air Fund for councils to bid for money to introduce new measures such as changing road layouts to cut congestion and reduce idling vehicles, new park and ride services, introducing concessionary travel schemes and improving bus fleets. More details will be announced later this year
  • A GBP 40 million Clean Bus Technology Fund grant scheme – part of a GBP 290 million National Productivity Investment Fund announced in the Autumn Statement – to limit emissions from up to 2 350 older buses

The government says it remains committed to putting the public finances back on a sustainable footing: so all money spent on air quality measures will be funded through changes to the tax treatment for new diesel vehicles or through reprioritisation within existing departmental budgets. Further details will be announced later this year.

Also announced:

  • Van drivers are set to be given the right to use heavier vehicles if they are electric or gas-powered, in measures that will help improve air quality in towns and cities across the country
  • Manufacturers found to be using devices on their vehicles to cheat emissions tests could face criminal and civil charges, with fines of up to GBP 50 000 for every device installed, under proposed new laws

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