The Government is proposing a number of measures to reduce emissions levels in the UK, including changes to motorway speed limits, a scrappage scheme and the widespread introduction of clean air zones.
A "targeted scrappage scheme for older, more polluting vans or cars" could be developed to contribute to the cost of purchasing a cleaner vehicle, said the report. The suggested scheme stipulates that any car scrapped would have to be replaced with a fully electric vehicle (see more details below), but added this is just one option.
It also said that if scrappage was 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".
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Ledsom, commented: "Improving air quality is a key priority. Our plan today sets out how we will just do that - including presenting options for target diesel scrappage schemes."
The proposal also states that the Government has concluded that adjusting speed limits "could be practicable" in helping emissions levels but added that it needed further monitoring in real world conditions before making a decision. It suggested that dropping the motorway speed limit from 70mph to 60mph would help improve air quality and would "have no impact on congestion".
It also outlines how a so-called Clean Air Zone would be implemented, stating that vehicles meeting a minimum standard would gain free entry into the zone. This would include diesel cars that comply with Euro 6 emissions standards and petrol cars that meet Euro 4 standards.
Fully electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would not be charged, while hybrid vehicles that meet minimum emissions requirements could also be exempt.
In addition, the plan outlines new funding to relieve road congestion, first announced last year, and extra funding for hydrogen vehicle infrastucture and uptake of hydrogen vehicles.
The Government also announced it is developing an accreditation scheme, to be launched this year, that will ensure that owners of older, higher-polluting vehicles can be confident that retrofit technologies applied will provide the necessary emissions reductions for free entry into a Clean Air Zone. However, this is largely focussed on commercial vehicles rather than private cars.
The proposals are laid out in a draft plan from the Government called the Clean Air Zone Framework, released today, that intends to improve air quality by reducing levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the UK.
The plans are now open for public consultation until 15 June, ahead of the final air quality plan’s publication on 31 July.
While many parts of the country are breaching emissions limits, the report says Greater London currently has the dirtiest air in the UK and that reducing emissions in the areas is "the most challenging" aspect of the plan.
However, plans are already in place within London to lower emissions, including the so-called T-Charge which comes into force this October, as well as an Ultra Low Emissions Zone from April 2019.
Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton already have plans to introduce clean air schemes before the end of 2019.
A government spokesman said: "The options now open for consultation on reducing nitrogen oxides in our towns and cities are designed to reduce the impact of diesel vehicles, and accelerate the move to cleaner transport.
He continued: “Local authorities are already responsible for improving air quality in their area, but will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist. The Government is consulting on a range of measures that could be taken to mitigate the impact of action to improve air quality.”
NOx primarily gets into the air from the burning of fuel, with diesel engines being particularly lethal, and is linked to a range of respiratory diseases in the UK. The UK is increasingly falling behind its NOx emissions targets, with 37 out of 43 regions in breach. In April 2015, the UK's Supreme Court ruled that the Government had to take action, with the timescale brought forward following a lengthy legal battle with environmental law firm ClientEarth.
Scrappage scheme proposed
There are a number of possible approaches to the scrappage scheme, but the proposal that the plan details is one in which any cars scrapped would have to be replaced by a fully electric model.
The Government's model predicts 15,000 vehicles would be scrapped - 9,000 diesel and 6,000 petrol - and replaced with electric vehicles. The report said that this option "was selected as it aligns with wider Government ambition to support Ultra Low Emission Vehicles... and does not involve replacing diesel with petrol which could have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions".
Vehicles owners who opted to scrap their cars would be offered a grant incentive of £6,000 plus £2,000 to cover the residual value of their vehicle. These are estimates which the government states "may not be reasonable".
However, the proposal said this was the only way in which a scrappage scheme could be designed, and is for illustrative purposes only. It said that other approaches include targeting vehicles from a specific sector, targeting by geography, or narrowing the individuals eligible to apply for a scrappage scheme.
If such as scheme were introduced, it would start in 2019 and last for one year only.
Clean air zones
The government breaks down clean air zones into two categories in the plan: non-charging clean air zones and charging clean air zones.
Non-charging clean air zones should involve “engaging and informing the community to ensure they understand the importance of good air quality, the choices available to them, the impacts they make and how these contribute to a successful zone,” said the framework.
Strategies will include making sure there is sufficient signing on major routes and better traffic management to help reduce traffic or improve its flow.
Clean air zones should encourage the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles, for example, by offering preferential parking spaces for ULEV drivers or lower parking fees while the public should also be encouraged to opt for “healthy, active” travel such as cycling or walking.
The report also addresses unnecessary engine idling and its contribution to emissions. “Local authorities may use their existing powers to tackle issues of excessive engine idling on public roads within Clean Air Zones,” it stated.
The most controversial aspect of the plan is charging clean air zones. Specifics of charging were not outlined in the proposal, merely stating they would be “published at a later date”.
As already mentioned, Euro 6 diesel vehicles and Euro 4 petrol vehicles and beyond will not be charged, nor will electric or hydrogen vehicles. It is also suggesting that older vehicles are retrofitted with emission-reducing technology to be able to access the clean air zones free of charge.
The plan suggests that local authorities should extensively consult with local communities and businesses and allow a decent period time before implementation to allow the public to adjust.
The government also said its planning had assumed a zone would operate at all hours of the day but that if a local authority can demonstrate that it would still comply with air quality standards by operating reduced hours, it could introduce such a scheme.
The car industry's reaction
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said: “SMMT welcomes the publication of government’s proposals for improving air quality across the UK which clearly states that the new Euro 6 diesels, which have been on sale for the past two years, will not face any penalty charges anywhere in the UK.
"Furthermore, the government is keen that local authorities avoid charging consumers and businesses for driving their vehicles if other more effective policies can be found. Industry is committed to improving air quality across our towns and cities and has spent billions developing new low emission cars, vans, trucks and buses and getting these new cleaner vehicles onto our roads quickly is part of the solution. As outlined in the plan, any proposed scrappage scheme would need to be targeted and deliver clear environmental benefits.
He added: "We're encouraged that plans to improve traffic flow and congestion, as well as increase uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles, will be prioritised in towns and cities. We look forward to working with the Government to encourage the uptake of the latest, low emission vehicles, regardless of fuel type.”
Coventry-based car maker Jaguar Land Rover said it welcomes "the consultation recognising the fundamental difference between older vehicles which contribute to air pollution and clean, new diesels which are part of the air quality solution".
Managing director Jeremy Hicks said its latest Euro 6 diesel engines were "among the cleanest in the world, with CO2 emissions around 20% lower than equivalent petrol engines". He pointed out that JLR is continuing to invest in cleaner technology, with £1bn invested at its Engine Manufacturing Centre near Wolverhampton, as well as a major hybrid and electrification programme.
However, Hicks added: "Older car engines are just one potential source of urban air pollutants, and we'd be keen to see the strategy tackling air quality across a range of pollution sources, including heating, public transport and shipping."