The case for decisive action on diesel pollution gets stronger by the day. The main reason is of course the toll on public health. Every year, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) kill around 40,000 Britons, cause the loss of 6 million working days, and cost the economy up to £20 billion per year – equal to more than 16% of the NHS budget.
But pollution also threatens the health of companies.
While many companies are successfully adopting a variety of new technologies, others still have work to do – particularly operators of refrigerated vehicles. The industry continues to rely on decades-old diesel cooling technology that remains essentially unregulated and highly polluting; despite that, unlike the atmosphere in our major cities, the regulatory direction of travel is now clear.
Britain has been in breach of EU air pollution standards since 2010, and the courts have twice ordered the government to strengthen its plans. The European Commission has given Britain a “final warning” to act within two months or face big fines and referral to the European Court of Justice. The political momentum means regulation will tighten regardless of Brexit, and will almost certainly include a network of low emission zones in major cities and possibly a diesel scrappage scheme. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has just announced a £10 Toxicity-charge (T-charge) for the most polluting cars from October this year.
However, the most polluting engines on the road are not being used to drive cars or trucks. The worst emitters are in fact the secondary diesel engines used to provide cooling on refrigerated trucks and trailers. Analysis by Dearman, the clean cold technology developer, has shown that these independent transport refrigeration units (TRUs) can emit six times as much NOx and 29 times as much PM as the Euro VI propulsion engine dragging them around. Compared to the official emissions limits of a modern Euro 6 diesel car, the TRU emits up to 93 times more NOx and 165 times more PM.
These disproportionately high emissions evaded the radar for many years, but are now beginning to be recognised by policymakers. TRUs were mentioned in both the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Clean Air Zone Framework published last autumn, and the Clean Air Bill, a Private Member’s Bill tabled by Labour MP Geraint Davies. Both make clear that TRUs will be covered by the new national network of Clean Air Zones. Defra talks of “encouraging the upgrade of refrigeration units on cold chain vehicles to the least polluting options”, while the Clean Air Bill calls for TRU use to be restricted in “specified urban areas”.
TRUs are vulnerable to regulation not only because they are highly polluting, but also because they are few in number. If the 84,000-strong UK TRU fleet were replaced with zero-emission alternatives, allowing for the total fleet mix it would equate to taking approximately 4 million Euro 6 diesel cars off the road. Come election time, businesses don’t have a vote, private motorists generally do.
TRUs may be relatively scarce, but they are hardly low profile. Each year in Britain they transport food worth £52 billion, often operating in residential areas or busy high streets. It can only be a matter of time before people realise that, while they are about to be penalised for driving a car, TRUs are operating on our streets unhindered by regulation or penalty.
Imagine the public fury when people realise that independent TRUs are also entitled to run on half price ‘red’ diesel. So not only do they spew much more pollution than cars - even old cars - but taxpayers subsidise them to do so!
TRUs are allowed to run on red diesel – bizarrely - because they are classed as ‘non-road mobile machinery’, even though they operate on a truck or trailer. But there is no conceivable economic justification for continuing to subsidise such a mature and highly polluting technology against new zero-emission competitors. Britain is one of only a handful of countries in the EU that still permits it. This loophole is unlikely to survive the intensified scrutiny the introduction of Clean Air Zones is likely to bring.
The TRU red diesel subsidy is also vulnerable because it prevents new clean cold technologies from taking off in the UK. The government has invested tens of millions of pounds into supporting clean cold technologies through Innovate UK and the Research Councils, and is unlikely to want to squander it by maintaining perverse fossil fuel subsidies that stop these innovations being taken up in their home market.
Air pollution regulations will soon be toughened to meet the scale of the challenge, and refrigerated transport will not escape. At some point operators will be forced to act by the combination of rising public awareness and regulatory pressure. Companies that want to demonstrate they are responsible corporate citizens would do well to embrace this opportunity early, not as the laggard who did the right thing only when compelled by regulation.
Happily, cold logistics operators might also find that doing the right thing is also good for business. Some of the newly designed zero-emission TRUs materially outperform conventional diesel systems delivering additional benefits. A win for business, customers, the environment and public health – now wouldn’t that be cool?
Professor Toby Peters was the co-founder of Dearman, was recently appointed Visiting Professor in Transformational Innovation for Sustainability at Heriot-Watt University, and is Visiting Professor in Power and Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham