Government distances itself from diesel scrappage scheme in air quality plan

The Government has today (5 May) published its overdue air quality plan which fails to commit to a targeted diesel scrappage scheme, while local authorities have been ordered to implement Clean Air Zones across the country.

The strategy was announced at midday after key local election results were announced. Despite numerous reports that the Government would outline plans for an incentivised diesel scrappage scheme, the strategy distances itself from the concept, opening it up instead as part of the consultation to follow.

“Such a scheme would have to be targeted at those most in need of support and be limited in scope,” the consultation document reads. “In devising mitigation measures, it will be important to consider the viability of any scheme and its overall cost. If, following this consultation, scrappage is identified as an appropriate mitigation measure, any scheme would need to provide value for money, target support where it was most needed, be deliverable at local authority level and minimise the scope for fraud.”

The technical report reveals that applying the scrappage scheme to all pre-Euro 6 diesel cars and vans in the UK in 2019 (eight million cars and two million vans, with grant levels of £6,000 and £6,500 respectively) could cost the Government £60bn.

The latest research shows that these diesel vehicles are now responsible for almost 40% of all NO2 emissions in the UK’s major cities. According to Defra figures, NO2 emissions from diesel traffic cause 23,500 of the 40,000 premature deaths from air pollution each year. If the Government is swayed on the viability of a scrappage system, it would represent a U-turn on diesel vehicles, after years of policy and tax enablers saw diesel car sales in Britain increase from 14% to 36%.

Elsewhere, the document urges local authorities not to impose tax charges on diesel motorists, with Ministers wary not to “punish” drivers who had bought the vehicles in good faith, especially ahead of the upcoming general election. Local councils have instead been encouraged to explore the “appropriate tax treatment” for the vehicles over the next 12 months.

Clean Air Zones

The strategy is instead focusing on Clean Air Zones which, according to the technical report, could deliver more than £1bn in net value.

The document notes that the Government will mandate “relevant” local authorities to implement Clean Air Zones within the shortest possible timeframe. The Zones can be implemented with or without a vehicle cost charge system and are aimed at stimulating business growth as well as improving air quality.

Also included in the plan is a real-world driving emissions test which will be enforced in September 2017. This comes more than a year after car manufacturer Volkswagen admitted to using ‘defeat devices’ in some of its most popular vehicles to cheat emissions tests. 

Regulatory changes will also be introduced across the next 12 months – subject to the outcome of the consultation – to stimulate uptake of alternatively fuelled vehicles, with a heavy focus on vans. A competition will also be launched this year to fund hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure.

Ministers had been given up to 24 April to produce an Air Quality Plan, but applied to delay the publication until the general election was settled. And despite protestations from ministers that publication of the plan would add “controversy” to the election campaign, the High Court ordered the UK Government to carry on with its release before 9 May.  

Yesterday it was revealed that lawyers are taking a class action against the Government on behalf of asthma sufferers. This could result in Ministers paying out significant compensation for allowing the nation’s air to exceed legal limits.  Defra’s “woeful approach” to reduce air pollution levels has seen the UK consistently exceed EU legal limits since 2010. 

Widespread support 

The issue came to a head with environmental law firm ClientEarth’s legal battle with the UK Government last November, which challenged them over breaches to EU air pollution laws and domestic regulation. It took just five days for parts of London to breach annual limits in 2017. At the time, Judge Garnham agreed with ClientEarth that policymakers had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible”.  

Reacting to the strategy, ClientEarth’s chief executive James Thornton said: “We are continuing to study the government’s latest air quality plan, but on the face of it, it looks much weaker than we had hoped for.”

ClientEarth’s case has gained support from a swathe of politicians, environmental groups and the general public. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who recently announced that London will have the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019, announced in his first week of office he would be directly involved in the legal action.  

The sustainability sector has also thrown its weight behind the need to take action on air pollution. A survey carried out earlier this week by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) found that, of 699 environmental and sustainability professionals, 97% want the issue become a major Government priority in the next Parliament, with 45% claiming it is a critical matter that demands a cross-departmental approach led by the Prime Minister. 

George Ogleby & Matt Mace

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