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What Air Quality Plan? Cynical Announcement Shifts Clean Up To Struggling Local Authorities

31/07/2017 13:05 BST | Updated 31/07/2017 13:05 BST

You might have seen the headlines: Sale of diesel and petrol vehicles to be banned by 2040. That sounds like big news, right? The end of the combustion engine. But when you take a closer look at the announcement - is this just more hot air?

Earlier this month Volvo announced that all of its new car models will be electric or hybrid by 2019 - in just two years' time - and they're not the only car-maker to announce ambitious plans for the move to electric vehicles. The Tesla is one of the most sort after cars around. In fact, academics have predicted that the mid-2020s will be the tipping point in the move to electric - which all makes the year 2040 seem a long, and inevitable, way off.

Indeed, India is planning to stop selling petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and Norway by 2025. What is it about the British economy, I wonder, that the government considers it to be so much weaker and less open to innovation that they have to plump for a target 10-15 years behind these other countries? Or was this announcement a smokescreen for something else?

The "2040" headlines trailed the government's much anticipated Air Quality Plan. The government has been taken to court three times over its lack of plans to tackle air pollution and was mandated to produce a new plan by the end of July. This was the announcement we were all waiting for.

In the UK alone, air pollution leads to 40,000 early deaths every year. It effects the most vulnerable, meaning that young children exposed to these pollutants can grow up with smaller, damaged lungs and respiratory problems for life. It is also linked to lung cancer, and heart disease and has been described as a public health issue akin to smoking.

So, how does the government plan on tackling this public health crisis? What else was included in this much awaited announcement?

Well, the truth is very, very little.

Besides the headline grabbing announcement, the government has revealed a new fund for local authorities which they can use to tackle dirty air. If they have a pollution problem, it's up to them to come up with an 'innovative' plan by December 2018. Which means even if there's some very creative councils out there, we're unlikely to see action before 2019 at the very earliest, likely much later. And there's little steer on what they should do - but a clear push away from the most effective action: Clean Air Zones.

Ministers know, as well as anyone, that Clean Air Zones - in which the most polluting vehicles are charged to enter - are by far the best way to give us breathable air fast. The government's own analysis shows that Clean Air Zones could reduce the levels of pollution far quicker than any other method. And yet the government has asked local authorities to look first at interventions such as 'improvements to local bus fleets, support for concessionary travel and more sustainable modes of transport such as cycling, or infrastructure changes'. Important actions, but without Clean Air Zones, they will be little more than tinkering around the edges with the government hoping vaguely that this will enable councils to 'avoid the imposition of restrictions on vehicles'.

The omission of Clean Air Zones is a scandalous response to a health crisis that cuts short thousands of lives every year. Avoiding the measure that could save the most lives, because it might annoy a few, is politicking at its very worst.

The plan also doesn't include a much needed national diesel scrappage scheme to support drivers to move away from the most polluting vehicles. Lots of people bought diesels not knowing the damaging pollutants their vehicles were emitting, and its right that those people should be offered a helping hand. That's why Friends of the Earth has been calling for Theresa May to provide a safety net for drivers by introducing a comprehensive diesel scrappage scheme funded by a 'diesel-gate levy' on manufacturers. Isn't it right that the manufactures that lied and polluted, help to clean up this mess?

Instead of showing leadership, and pressing manufacturers to do more, the government has produced a plan which is weak on Clean Air Zones, weak on a diesel scrappage scheme, and passes the buck on any real action to struggling local authorities.

The government cynically grabbed the headlines by announcing changes for 23 years' time whilst failing to enact measures which will curb pollution in UK towns and cities now. This is what the UK's choking streets are crying out for.

Lives will continue to be cut short because the government hasn't got the guts to restrict where the worst polluting vehicles can go. And we're all the poorer and less healthy for it.