Government publishes plans to improve air quality

Plans put forward by the Government include new clean air zones across the UK, with a small-scale diesel scrappage scheme under consideration...

Government publishes plans to improve air quality

The Government has announced new plans to tackle air pollution across the UK. The draft proposals, labelled as the Clean Air Zone Framework, aim to improve the increasingly poor air quality around our biggest cities, and in particular London.

While many parts of the country are breaching emissions limits, the report says that Greater London currently has the dirtiest air in the UK, and that reducing emissions in the area is "the most challenging" aspect of the plan.

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 (ULEZ) from April 2019.

Is there a diesel scrappage scheme coming?

Not yet. While diesel scrappage was widely rumoured to form part of the Government's plans, today's proposals only show that the Government is considering the idea. The proposal documents say that any such scheme would need to be "targeted at those most in need of support and be limited in scope".

Technical papers accompanying the report say that a nationwide scrappage scheme could take as many as 15,000 older diesel and petrol cars off the road, to be replaced by hybrid or fully electric cars. Such a scheme could be in place in as little as two years if approved, with drivers offered incentives of up to £8000 to scrap their cars.

What are the new proposals?

There are three main proposals put forward by the Government, but it's worth remembering that nothing is definite at this stage.

Clean air zones: There are already a number of low-emissions and clean air zones in place in the UK, and these proposals suggest that they could become more widespread. There are two approaches being considered, with one focused on more passive measures that don't include charging the most polluting vehicles. Non-charging measures include encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), improving road layouts and using retrofitting technology (more on that below).

It's already known that Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton have plans to introduce clean air schemes by the end of 2019.

The other option does involve charging, with the most polluting vehicles having to pay if they don't meet emissions standards, which are currently defined as Euro 4 for petrol cars and Euro 6 for diesels. Fully electric or hydrogen-powered cars (ie, those which emit 0g/km of CO2) won't be charged, nor will hybrid cars that meet those emissions limits.

All cars sold today have to adhere to a maximum amount of pollutants they can emit. These maximum limits, known as the Euro standards, have been decreasing over the years as cars have gotten cleaner. The most recent Euro standard, Euro 6, came into force in 2014. To put the standards in context, the emissions limits for both petrol and diesel cars have more than halved since 2000.

Retrofitting public transport vehicles: There are already retrofitting schemes in place for public transport vehicles (including emergency service cars and vans, buses and taxis), with 1500 buses retrofitted since last autumn, and the uptake of such schemes is expected to increase now among local councils.

Although it's not explicity mentioned in the plans, that retrofitting solution could be extended to owners of the most polluting vehicles, which would likely involve fitting AdBlue exhaust treatments onto diesel cars, thus helping to reduce their emissions.

Adjusting speed limits: The Government's plan says that "adjusting speed limits could be practicable", and calls for the collection of real-world data to see the effect that speed has on emissions levels. It has been noted, though, that the faster cars travel, the more harmful emissions they produce. Therefore, one of the Government's plans has suggested that lowering the motorway speed limit from 70mph to 60mph could benefit air quality.

The plans also call for closer ties between local councils and central Government to find solutions for local road networks, and for those solutions to be delivered "in the shortest possible time". Less than 1% of the UK's motorway network currently exceeds emissions limits, and Highways England, which manages many of our motorways, has already committed to providing charging points for EVs every 20 miles across 95% of the network.

If I drive a diesel car, am I going to be charged?

If you've bought a diesel car within the last two years, then no. Your car will already meet the latest Euro 6 emissions limits, and therefore is already among the cleanest diesel cars. If your car is older than that, then you might (in time) be invited to retrofit your car so that it meets Euro 6 emissions standards.

Why is this happening?

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is emitted by diesel engines, and is linked to a range of respiratory diseases in the UK including asthma – in fact, the Royal College of Physicians says that air pollution is responsible for around 40,000 premature deaths every year.

The UK is also falling increasingly behind its emissions targets, with 37 out of 43 regions in breach of NOx limits. In April 2015, the UK's Supreme Court ruled that the Government had to take action, with the timescale bought forward following a lengthy legal battle with environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

Industry reaction

Car manufacturers have begun to react to the plans, with Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) saying that its latest diesel engines are "among the cleanest in the world".

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), which represents the views of the motor industry, has welcomed the proposals, saying: "Industry is committed to improving air quality across our towns and cities," and that "any proposed [diesel] scrappage scheme would need to be targeted and deliver clear environmental benefits."

Secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affaird Andrea Leadsom said: "Improving air quality is a key priority as we support businesses in building a stronger and cleaner economy. Our plan today sets out how we will do just that – including presenting options for targeted diesel scrappage schemes."

What happens next?

The air quality consultation runs for six weeks, and closes at midnight on 15 June. Anyone can have their say on the proposals. After that, expect proposals to be revealed in more detail at the end of July, with any new measures implemented as soon as possible. If you want to have your say as part of the consultation, you can read all of the documents online.

Read more - should I buy a diesel car?

Read more - the best (and worst) hybrid cars

Got a motoring question? Our experts are standing by to help, just tweet us your question using #askwhatcar

For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here