Government failing on low-carbon vehicles, MPs warn

The Department for Transport (DfT) must commit to a long-term green vehicle strategy through an increase in the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV) and a reduction in air pollution levels in order to achieve national decarbonisation targets, the latest report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has concluded.

The EAC’s Sustainability in the Department for Transport report calls for the DfT to work with the rail sector to set realistic decarbonisation targets, and urges the Government to ensure car manufacturer Volkswagen (VW) speeds up its recall programme for cars fitted with cheat devices.

Committee chair Mary Creagh MP said: “The uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles like electric cars, is too low to meet the UK’s climate change targets at the lowest cost to the public. Air quality targets that were supposed to be met in 2010 won’t be hit until 2020 at the earliest.

“And it’s been almost a year since we discovered VW had fitted cars with cheat devices, but Government has still to decide what action to take against the company.”

‘Playing catch-up’

According to the report, the UK will fail to meet a target ensuring that ULEVs make-up 9% of all new car and van sales by 2020, with current projections claiming that the figure will be closer to 4.5%. The EAC are concerned that this failure risks leaving the UK “playing catch-up” with its cost-effective strategy to achieve the overall 2050 emissions reduction target.

The EAC stated that it currently has “no confidence” that the UK will achieve 60% market share by 2030, and urged the Department to provide post-Brexit investor stability and certainty through policies that signal to industries its intention to incentivise ULEV uptake.

During research, local authorities and the car industry suggested a number of innovate ways in which the Department could increase Electric Vehicle (EV) use. Several methods were put forward, such as supporting low-emission fleet procurement by underwriting risk or guaranteeing buy-back; helping workplaces invest in charging points; and introducing changes to vehicle taxation – including company cars – to make EVs more attractive.

Creagh said: “The Government needs to give manufacturers – such as Nissan, Honda, LTC, and Toyota – a reason to choose their UK car factories – in places like Sunderland, Swindon, Coventry, and Derby – to manufacture the next generation of low-emission vehicles.”

Air quality proposals

The EAC is also concerned over the Department’s apparent lack of a long-term strategy towards air quality, with statistics suggesting that toxic air pollution is ‘claiming tens of thousands of UK lives a year’. The issue is especially prevalent in the transport sector, where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are gradually increasing, despite other sectors announcing reductions. 

Transport authorities throughout England told the EAC they have had problems with getting sustainable transport projects off the ground, because the DfT places more importance on economic benefits rather than the health benefits of improving air quality.

The EAC has stressed the importance of maintaining commitments to existing air quality standards in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, urging the DfT to work with other layers of Government to ensure the benefits of clean air are incorporated into transport investment decisions.

Reacting to the EAC’s air quality proposals, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: “Air pollution is a public health crisis of breath-taking proportions, leading to tens of thousands of early deaths each year. It’s time the Department for Transport prioritised making the air we breathe safer, rather than pandering to motorists.”

VW scandal

In terms of tackling the VW scandal, which broke almost a year ago, the EAC has commented on a “worrying inertia” from ministers, and called for a swift resolution whether to take legal action. Only yesterday, a report found that new diesel cars are still emitting many times the official limit for polluting nitrogen oxides when driven on the road.

“[Ministers] should ask the Vehicle Certification Agency to carry out tests to see whether, without the cheat devices, VW Group cars in the UK would have failed emissions tests.” Creagh recommended.

The Committee is also calling for clearer decarbonisation targets from Network Rail and train operating companies, showing how those targets have been chosen, and how performance against them will be measured. The rail operators should report on sustainability progress through the Greening Government Commitments, just as Highways England and other public agencies do, the Committee claims.

‘Future prosperity’

The report arrives during a difficult period for the transport sector, which faces an uphill battle to reach its 2020 renewable targets across the sector. Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECC) chair Angus MacNeil yesterday told edie that the UK was “way off” from achieving its transport targets, claiming that the DfT regards the issue as “low-hanging fruit” in the Department.

MacNeil called for a more joined-up approach between the DtT and the newly-formed Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in terms of achieving a low-carbon transport regulatory framework, a view that has been shared by the Renewable Energy Association (REA).

Commenting on the EAC’s report, REA’s head of renewable transport Clare Wennerat said: “Sustainable transport is essential for the future prosperity of the UK. The economy literally cannot function optimally if our cities are clogged with pollution and our consumers handicapped by poor air quality.

“We are one of the many stakeholders concerned that the DfT will not meet their legally binding 2020 renewable energy targets. We urge them to work closely with BEIS and other departments to form a clear strategy for renewable fuels and electric vehicle uptake, not only for the short term, but for the coming decades.”

George Ogleby

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