The UK Government has finally announced its plans to clean up the air we breathe. They have unquestionably responded to pressure from campaigners, but hopefully they also recognise the genuine harm that nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter has on all our health.
The most striking proposal is to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040. That's an ambitious goal, which has created headlines and sends a clear message about what the future holds; albeit without the energy and financial roadmap for how we get there.
But we are in the midst of an air quality crisis now. We need meaningful action today, not in 23 years, and it's the rest of the Government's strategy that isn't as strong as it should be.
The decision to provide money for local authorities to tackle air pollution hotspots and to support retrofitting of buses is welcome. But it will have a limited impact. The decision not to mandate Clean Air Zones in city centres across the country, will undermine efforts to encourage individuals and businesses to move away from polluting transport.
The current proposals will also do nothing to tackle some of the heaviest polluters on our roads, or to address the perverse subsidies that support the use of highly polluting diesel engines in urban areas. The Government should therefore consider two comparatively cheap, simple and achievable reforms that would target the engines that emit the most.
Transport refrigeration units (TRUs), the secondary diesel engines used to provide cooling on refrigerated trucks and trailers, emit up to 93 times more nitrogen oxides and 165 times more particulate matter than a Euro 6 diesel car.
Yet these TRUs are entitled to run on half price, tax free 'red' diesel, meaning we not only tolerate their grossly disproportionate emissions, but also subsidise them. TRUs are allowed to run on red diesel because they are classed as 'Non Road Mobile Machinery', even though they operate on a truck or trailer ... and on our busiest roads.
There is no conceivable economic justification for continuing to subsidise such a mature and highly polluting technology, making them artificially cheap compared to new zero-emission competitors.
The first thing the government could do is to eliminate the red diesel subsidy for transport refrigeration. This would encourage operators to use their existing equipment as efficiently as possible, and remove the artificial cost comparison between innovative zero emission technologies and outdated diesel.
Meanwhile, the government should set a date for the phase out of all diesel TRUs from the UK, as it has done for cars and trucks. Competitive zero emission alternatives exist and as the fleet is so much smaller, they should aim for a phase out within five years.
Removing diesel TRUs from the streets of London alone would remove the same amount of particulate matter as taking 300,000 Euro 6 diesel cars off the road. By setting a practical date for the phase out now, operators can plan for the transition and introduce zero emission TRUs as vehicles are replaced.
The Government's clean air proposals set some ambitious long term aspirations, but they must address the public health crisis we face today. Giving money to local authorities to change road layouts and re-sequence traffic lights will help address pollution hotspots, but it won't solve the underlying problem of too many diesel engines on the road.
There are simple, practical and deliverable solutions to have a tangible near-term impact on pollution by targeting disproportionate polluters. They might not make headlines, but would have an immediate positive impact on public health.
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