UK air quality in the spotlight once again

  Jason Ford, News Editor

Last week saw the publication of the government’s draft plan to improve air quality by reducing nitrogen dioxide levels across the UK.

The government is turning to local authorities to ‘develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist’, which won’t lead to any kind of quick fix given that diesel vehicles are in the firing line of this consultation.

In a joint statement from Defra and DoT, the government says it is consulting on a range of measures that could be taken to mitigate the impact of action to improve air quality.

In the draft UK Air Quality Plan for Tacking Nitrogen Dioxide, Defra and DoT concede that the introduction of stricter vehicle emissions regulations (Euro standards) has not delivered the expected reduction in emissions of NOx from diesel vehicles and that road transport is still by far the largest contributor to NOx pollution in the local areas where the UK is exceeding limit values. In what has become an annual occurrence, London breached its pollution limits within the first week of the year, prompting widespread calls for tougher measures to be enacted.

‘However, road transport is a key part of almost everything that we do as individuals or businesses with social and economic impacts which are much wider than air quality,’ the report states. ‘This means setting new policies and incentives to promote new technology and innovation, speeding up the move to cleaner vehicles and supporting the industrial strategy to deliver cleaner air for UK towns and cities.’

Consequently, local authorities will now be charged with implementing so-called ‘Clean Air Zones’ within the shortest possible time. At the national level, a raft of measures have already been announced that include funding to encourage the roll-out of hydrogen vehicles and supporting infrastructure, and increase funding to encourage the uptake of electric taxis, with taxi drivers being offered £7,500 off the cost of a new low-GHG vehicle by way of an incentive. This is also being considered for drivers of older diesel vehicles.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT welcomed the proposals for improving air quality across Britain, plus the exemption of new Euro 6 diesels from any penalty charges.

“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,” he said. “As outlined in the plan, any proposed scrappage scheme would need to be targeted and deliver clear environmental benefits. 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 government to encourage the uptake of the latest, low emission vehicles, regardless of fuel type.”

Prof Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine, Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said: “Since this proposed plan has been developed to ‘avoid undue impact on the motorist’, it is not surprising that the ambitious option of removing the current toxic diesel fleet from all UK roads by 2025 is not a key component.

“Given that previous initiatives that have not directly targeted diesel emissions have failed dismally in the past, I am not confident that these proposed local interventions, however innovative, will achieve a step reduction in exposure of vulnerable populations, such as young children.”

Diesel cars aren’t totally responsible for all NOx emissions covered in the consultation but a new testing regime in Britain is seeking to ensure that NOx tests on new vehicles are at least accurate. Under Real Driving Emissions (RDE) tests from September 2017, vehicle manufacturers will be required to ensure that real-world NOx emissions for new models are increasingly aligned with lab-testing limits

This, claims the government, will entail ‘using innovative technologies to bring forward new, cleaner vehicles that should deliver lower NOx emissions across a wider range of operating conditions.’

RDE (package 3) and Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP) both feature on the agenda at IMechE’s Real Driving Emissions: Adapting to Changing Regulation. Taking place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on May 23, the event will discuss the technical challenges facing engineers in meeting emissions targets, plus the role that emissions testing procedures play in this. According to IMechE, issues surrounding the standardisation of equipment and procedure, as well as best practice in developing reports from the data, will also be addressed.