Helping fleets get ahead amid air pollution issues

Helping fleets get ahead amid air pollution issues

There is a serious air pollution problem in this country, brought to light by health warnings, court cases and industry‑level scandal. Dominic Phinn from environmental law firm ClientEarth gives advice to fleets as political attention to air quality makes waves in the transport sector.

If we cast our minds back five years and think about the health issues debated in the UK, air quality was nowhere near the top of the list. But that’s all changed.

There is a serious pollution problem in this country, brought to light by health warnings, court cases and industry-level scandal. Air quality is now front and centre of conversations about health and the environment. London Mayor Sadiq Khan states air quality as one of his top two priorities and Michael Gove has promised to make cutting air pollution one of his top concerns in his new post as secretary of state for environment.

Political attention to air quality is already making waves in the transport sector. So what’s this likely to mean for the fleet world?

The UK’s air quality problem

Tackling poor air quality will demand strong decisions, particularly for those responsible for large fleets of light commercial vehicles. But the attention that the issue of air quality is receiving is right and overdue.

In the UK, pollution levels cause the equivalent of 40,000 premature deaths every year. Air pollution can trigger heart and asthma attacks, increasing the risk of death. It also causes cancer and can stunt the lungs of children growing up in polluted areas. During pregnancy and childhood we know that development of the heart, brain, hormone systems and immune system can all be affected by air pollution. These risks have been reflected in EU law for some time.

Since 2008, the UK has been bound by legal limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other pollutants. But the NO2 limit has been and continues to be consistently breached throughout the UK, around our busier roads and town centres. The Dieselgate scandal highlighted how vehicles are emitting far more on the roads than they do in the lab.

In some places, people are being exposed to two to three times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide.

Legal action to protect health

This is totally unacceptable. As a public interest law organisation, ClientEarth believes that people should have the right to breathe clean air and we have now taken successive UK governments to court to call for an effective and targeted Air Quality Plan (AQP) to uphold that right.

As a result of our legal challenges, an AQP was published in December 2015 but it was woefully inadequate – not enough detail, not enough accuracy, and not enough action taken by central government.

Following a second legal challenge in 2016, the UK government was ordered by the High Court to improve their AQP. The government’s own technical evidence identifies charging Clean Air Zones as the most effective way to reduce air pollution in our towns and cities quickly. This means that whatever the plan looks like, government will have to clamp down on diesel.

The transport detox is underway

Policy change will follow but the direction of travel is clear. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have said they will ban diesel vehicles from 2025 to cut air pollution. As a result of ClientEarth’s legal challenge in Munich (the home of BMW), the mayor recently announced that he sees no choice but to ban diesel from the city centre to combat the “shocking” NO2 concentrations in the city.

French Energy minister Nicolas Hulot recently stated that sales of gas and diesel-powered vehicles in France will be phased out over the course of the next two and a half decades.

Meanwhile, fluctuating oil prices, increased concern about carbon emissions, improvements in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and growing public attention to air quality have led to strong commitment from businesses.

Volvo sent shockwaves through the car industry, announcing that all models it introduces from 2019 will be either hybrid or powered solely by batteries. General Motors announced plans to launch ten electric models by 2020 and Toyota, which has traditionally been reluctant to make all-electric vehicles, has set out an ambition to mass-produce them by 2020.

We are yet to see how these commitments will be replicated by manufacturers of commercial vehicles, but we are seeing increasingly ambitious commitments from companies with large fleets.

Distribution Giant UPS has just set a new goal to ensure that by 2020, of all vehicles purchased annually, one in four will be an alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle. The company also set a new goal that by 2025, 40 per cent of all fuel will be from sources other than petrol and diesel.

Changes fleet owners will face

ClientEarth is calling for a comprehensive network of Clean Air Zones (CAZs) across the UK that will keep the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities.

There needs to be measures to help and incentivise fleet managers, particularly those from the smallest businesses, to switch from the dirtiest vehicles to cleaner forms of transport.

We also need to see markets for cleaner commercial vehicles develop further in order to make sure there are competitive low and zero emission alternatives.

We need to make switching from diesel not just the right decision to protect people’s health, but also a decision that makes sense financially.

Government support may include removing the fiscal incentives for diesel vehicles and investing in charging infrastructure to improve the number, reliability and speed of charging points. The government should also put in place a targeted scrappage scheme for diesel cars, vans and lorries to get the worst polluting vehicles off our roads and help people and businesses move on to cleaner forms of transport.

Cleaner and cheaper transport

Poor air quality is costing people their health and the NHS billions. However, the technology to tackle it is available and increasingly affordable, and change is already happening.

Cities are mapping plans that restrict access to vehicles with internal combustion engines, and manufacturers are answering with a shift in planned production. As real driving emissions are more effectively measured and noted, there is a real risk that even new Euro 6 diesel vehicles may soon be prohibited from entering the UK’s network of proposed Clean Air Zones – and similar networks across Europe.

Forward-looking fleet managers will look to shifting fleets to low or zero emission vehicles now. The transition from diesel will not be without challenges but will lead to a UK with cleaner, more attractive cities, healthier people and, ultimately, improved efficiency in logistics.

What we need now is for the UK government to stop delaying and deliver a plan that fleet managers can act on with confidence and that will accelerate the unmistakeable clean transport trend that is already in place so we can breathe clean air.

ClientEarth is committed to giving industry a voice in the clean air debate.

To get involved in the debate, contact Dominic Phinn at

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