Hydrogen fuel boost for Britain as MPs gear up for ‘unprecedented’ scrutiny of air quality policy

The UK Government has set up a new £23m fund to boost the uptake of hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure, while MPs have today (20 March) joined forces to launch an "unprecedented" four-pronged investigation into the UK's approach on air quality.

Transport Minister John Hayes last weekend announced details of the fund, which will enable hydrogen fuel providers and hydrogen car manufacturers to bid in collaboration for investment to help build high-tech infrastructure such as fuel stations.

A competition will be launched in the summer, with public organisations, businesses and hydrogen operators invited to submit proposals. The Government has pledged to match funding for successful bidders, as part of overarching plans for almost all new cars and vans to be zero-emission by 2040.

“The transition to zero-emission road transport is both inevitable and desirable as it will improve air quality in many of our towns and cities,” Hayes said. “Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles can play a vital role alongside battery electric vehicles to help us cut harmful emissions.”

The announcement came just days after Japanese carmaker Toyota unveiled plans to invest £240m in upgrading its UK factory in Derbyshire. Commenting on the Government’s new fund, Toyota GB’s president Paul Van der Burgh vowed that his firm will work with public and private actors to help the UK “realise the significant potential of hydrogen as a clean and sustainable source of power”.

“Toyota believes hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (EVs) can play an important role in the transition to a low-carbon, low-emissions society,” Van der Burgh said. “We chose the UK as one of the first international markets for our Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car and are pleased that the Government is investing in this programme to encourage the further development of refuelling infrastructure and the wider uptake of fuel cell vehicles.”

Ministers have set aside more than £600m for low-emission vehicles over the course of this Parliament to help reduce the UK’s carbon emissions and improve air quality.

‘Unprecedented scrutiny’

Meanwhile, the Government’s air quality strategy is set to come under heightened cross-party scrutiny from today (20 March), as no less than four select committees launch a joint inquiry into plans to tackle urban pollution hotspots.

Members of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA), Health and Transport Committees will hold four evidence sessions to examine growing evidence on the health and environmental impacts of outdoor air pollution.

“The UK economy depends on an efficient and flexible transport system but emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions,” Transport Select Committee Chair Louise Ellman MP said.

“We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Air pollution both inside and outside the home causes at least 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, according to research. Since an unsuccessful legal battle over its plans to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country, the High Court has ordered the Government to publish a draft new clean air plan to tackle nitrogren oxide (NO2) by 24 April, with a final plan by 21 July.

The new inquiry will examine whether revised Government plans will go far enough to cut pollution, not only to meet legal limits but to deliver maximum health and environmental benefits.

EAC chair Mary Creagh said: “The UK courts have twice found that the Government has failed to deal with our air pollution problem properly. Now, ministers will face unprecedented scrutiny in Parliament to ensure they finally step up to the mark to ensure adults, and children in particular, do not have their health damaged by filthy air.”

EFRA chair Neil Parish added: “The solutions to cleaning up our air are not the responsibility of just one minister. That’s why we have taken the unprecedented task of convening four select committees so we can scrutinise the Government’s efforts from every angle and look for holistic solutions that are good for health, transport and the environment.”

Holistic solutions

The Committees will be considering the following questions:

  • How effectively do Government policies take account of the health and environmental impacts of poor air quality?
  • Are the Government’s revised plans for tackling nitrogen dioxide levels sufficient to meet the High Court and European Commission requirements for urgent action?
  • Does the revised plan set out effective and proportionate measures for reducing emissions from transport?
  • Is there sufficient cross-government collaboration to ensure the right fiscal and policy incentives are adopted to ensure air quality targets are achieved?

Any written submissions to the inquiry should be submitted by 5pm on Friday 12 May 2017.

The inquiry announcement comes less than a week after MPs from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee launched a consultation into the role of EVs in the UK’s low-carbon transition.

George Ogleby

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