Air quality

Connecting HGVs to the UK’s green energy journey: the future of gas is green and the future for HGVs is gas

For the past 200 years, gas has been a fuel that has offered the UK flexibility – be it for street lighting, industrial processes, power generation, or heat demand. During this time, the UK has built the world’s leading gas grid infrastructure, which today directly supplies the energy used to heat 85% of British homes. Faced with the challenge of climate change, the next stage in its evolution will be low-carbon or ‘green gas’.

Gas currently accounts nearly 50% of non-transport UK primary energy needs – primarily for power generation and heat. But it also offers an option to help decarbonise parts of the transport sector, particularly for vehicles like HGVs, where large powertrains are needed.

In addition to tackling carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Government has recently come under real public pressure to toughen up its plans to tackle illegal levels of airborne pollutants in our towns and cities, most notably nitrous oxides (NOX) and particulate matter (PM) which cause and exacerbate a raft of debilitating health conditions. Action on the twin challenge of CO2 and air quality must permeate every level of government, and every department of government.

There are approximately 39 million vehicles on the roads in the UK and HGVs, buses and coaches make up less than 2% of that total. In total, a staggering 324 billion vehicle miles were travelled in the UK last year, with HGVs, buses and coaches contributing 6% of that total. This relatively small number of vehicles emit 20% of the UK transport’s greenhouse gases. A recent report by Element Energy showed that just 18 months on from its opening, a compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station at Leyland in Lancashire is cutting CO2 emissions from the HGVs that use it by 84%, thanks to its exclusive usage of renewable biomethane. These are not marginal gains, they represent transformation potential for a sector that is notoriously difficult to decarbonise. Forward-thinking companies like Waitrose, who use Leyland, are at the forefront of this transformation.

But there’s a by-product too, what economists would call a positive externality. Those 2% of vehicles, travelling just 6% of the miles in the UK, also emit 43% of road side nitrogen oxides. Given that there were an estimated 40,000 early deaths last year as a result of poor air quality, then it should be a cause for concern. Low-carbon vehicle trials showed NO2 emissions down 74% when using gas not diesel; NOx down 41% whilst Iveco (who make diesel and gas trucks) reckon a EuroVI gas HGV produces 96% fewer particulate matter emissions compared to its diesel counterpart.

There has been some action in London around ultra clean air zones, but wholesale switching from diesel to gas HGVs, whilst economically rational (with 30% savings on a pence/mile basis) has been too slow. Yes, there is a need for another 150 or so, strategically located gas-filling stations to give fleet operators a real choice, but the Government could do more to signal their support for the switch. And sadly, Conservative MPs are lagging behind Labour in support for regulation to encourage the switch from diesel (52% versus 73% support according to a Dods survey on behalf of EUA).

It will also need joined-up government, too. The Department of Transport is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions from HGVs; Defra have responsibility for air quality; BEIS look after energy policy; the Department for Health pay the bill for NHS treatment for those affected by poor air quality. It’s easy to see the flaws in this structure. Let’s hope there is leadership on this to deliver.

Mike Foster is the Chief Executive of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, a not-for-profit trade association that provides a leading industry voice to help shape the future policy direction within the energy sector

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Pedal power: why cycling should be at the centre of Government thinking

The Government is being taken to court yet again over its air quality plans. Environmental lawyers Client Earth have previously defeated both of the Government’s previous attempts at an air quality strategy. This third version has been reduced in scope to an ‘Air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide’, pending a fuller air quality strategy next year. Yet it too has been roundly criticised by transport planners, health professionals, environmentalists, and local authorities alike.

Everyone now agrees that previous governments’ support for diesel vehicles was a terrible mistake. We traded off marginal reductions in greenhouse gas emissions against increases in lethal pollutants. But action on pollution also needs to be linked to other issues too. A 2009 Cabinet Office report, on the costs of transport in English urban areas, found that the economic costs of air quality, congestion, road casualties and physical inactivity were all of a similar magnitude: around £10 billion annually.

Based on this evidence, surely it makes sense to invest in policies that tackle all of these costs by addressing their common cause: too much motor traffic. Transport planners since the 1960s have acted as if congestion was their number one challenge, with the other issues being secondary. Now we risk taking a similarly myopic view of air pollution, missing the bigger picture. Demonising diesels is now commonplace, with electric vehicles being seen as an environmental saviour. They are undoubtedly beneficial both for air quality and the climate – yet relying purely on electric vehicles would still leave us with congested and dangerous streets.

Investing in cycling and walking is, by contrast, a hugely cost-effective solution to all of these problems. Enabling people of all ages and abilities – young and old alike – to get around safely on foot or by bike would not only civilise our streets but would also halt the rise of obesity, type-two diabetes and other inactivity-related conditions, with all their human and economic costs.

But don’t cycle facilities cause congestion and pollution? After all, that’s what the papers keep saying!

Well, that might be true if you put your blinkers on and look only at the immediate impacts on motor vehicle journey times specifically along a street where new protected cycle lanes have just been built. But the opposite is true if you look at the wider road network, and consider the efficient movement of people (rather than motor vehicles), particularly in the longer term. A typical lane of a typical road can carry 2,000 cars per hour, or 14,000 bicycles. Reallocating motor vehicle space as space for cycling enables a lot more people to get from A to B efficiently, and reduces the amount of congestion and pollution they create throughout the rest of their journey. This benefit can be expected to easily outweigh the additional congestion faced by those who continue driving along the road which now has less motor vehicle capacity. London’s cycle superhighways are already carrying a lot more people than they could possibly have done under their previous configuration.

Moreover, this benefit is set to grow. People and businesses will continue adapting to changes in travel times, switching to the most efficient means of getting around. But the really big benefits come from creating an increasingly comprehensive cycle network. So far we only have a few disconnected lanes here and there. It will increase massively as our towns and cities start developing comprehensive cycle networks – as is the norm in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

So, what does the Government need to do to maximise the air quality and other benefits of cycling?

For one, it should require local authorities to draw up a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) as part of every Clean Air Zone. The Government’s recommended approach to planning comprehensive walking and cycling networks is a huge leap forward from our current tendency to provide disconnected cycle facilities where there happens to be a bit of spare space and a bit of spare cash. Yet at present, English local authorities are under no obligation to follow this guidance (unlike their Welsh counterparts), nor is there any financial support or incentives for those who do so. Changing this has to be part of the Government’s wider air pollution strategy.

It also needs to shift the balance of funding from inter-urban road schemes to healthy, efficient and sustainable local transport solutions. The conventional argument for road-building is that it supposedly benefits the economy. Yet this claim has been repeatedly questioned by leading transport academics. And it ignores the adverse economic impacts of a car-dominated transport system on the economies of our urban areas – as quantified in the Cabinet Office report mentioned earlier. Local authorities, combined authorities and ‘metro-mayors’ of all political persuasions are eager to invest in high-quality walking and cycling provision, recognising how this could improve the health of their streets, their residents and the local economy. A shift in funding would enable them to do so, yielding huge benefits.

Alongside this, the Government should coordinate a national framework for urban road user charging schemes, to cover both congestion and pollution impacts. The main reason why the Government keeps losing legal battles over air quality is because of its reluctance to support road user charging, despite having identified it as the most effective measure for tackling air pollution in the “shortest possible time” (as required by law). Instead, the Government has left councils not only to make the political justification for road user charging, but also to work out the charging processes and technologies. It claims that air pollution is a local problem. Yet surely a problem in over 200 locations needs to be seen as a national problem! In the name of efficiency, it needs to provide a national lead on tackling air pollution and congestion. There are huge economic, environmental, health and quality of life benefits to be gained from doing so.

The third is to back this up with financial incentives not only for people to trade in old diesel cars, but also for motor vehicle manufacturers to stop selling them. A scrappage scheme could be funded by a short-term increase in vehicle excise duty for the dirtiest motor vehicles.

Over time though, the financial signals need to shift towards reducing the use (rather than merely the ownership) of motor vehicles – starting in the most congested and polluted areas, but progressively tackling their energy and climate impacts too. Simply electrifying the vehicle fleet, without reducing our use of motor vehicles, would increase our energy demand, which would need to be met from renewables if reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are to be maximised. It could also massively reduce Treasury revenues – by between £9 billion and £23 billion, according to one estimate. There has to be a clear and transparent link between charging that deters the use of dirty and inefficient transport, and investment in efficient, healthy and clean alternatives such as walking and cycling.

Roger Geffen is the Policy Director at Cycling UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Bright Blue

Could a diesel scrappage scheme solve the air quality issue?

Last week, it was reported that the Department for Transport is considering introducing a diesel scrappage scheme. Under this policy, the government would give cashback to motorists who trade in their old polluting diesel vehicle. A diesel scrappage scheme would help to accelerate the shift away from diesel vehicles, removing one of the biggest sources of harmful air pollution from the roads for good.

What’s the problem?

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the issue: each year around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK are linked to poor air quality. A recent EU report found that in the UK six million workdays were lost each year to air pollution and that the health-related externalities totalled €28 billion. Air pollution is damaging people’s health, and adding costs to public services and businesses in the process. The source of the problem in pollution hotspots is road transport, which produces over 95% of the toxic fumes in these areas. And diesel vehicles in particular are responsible, as they emit many times more nitrogen dioxide than petrol alternatives.

The Government urgently needs to find a solution to this problem, following their latest defeat in the High Court last year. The judge ruled the Government’s air quality plan was inadequate. The Government now has until April 2017 to produce a new draft plan to bring the UK into full legal compliance by 2019 at the latest. This strategy must be confirmed by July 2017. Air pollution is also being driven up the agenda by the Government’s decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow. Local campaigners say they are planning to use the air quality concerns to block the project in the courts.

Context for the scrappage scheme

The UK had a vehicle scrappage scheme in 2009, introduced in response to the financial crisis. Rather than an environmental measure, it was a stimulus for the domestic car industry, which had seen new vehicle registrations fall by 30% between the first quarter of 2008 and the same time in 2009. Under the scheme, vehicles over 10 years old could be scrapped in return for a £2,000 discount off a new vehicle. The Government allocated a £400 million budget for the scheme.

The idea of a scrappage scheme for polluting diesel vehicles has been around for a while. But, until now, the Government has always been dismissive on the grounds of cost. In April last year, a source from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was quoted saying that there was "no proportionate way to appropriately target such a measure to the areas where it would be most needed and it would be prohibitively expensive, as well as an ineffective use of resource to offer a scheme indiscriminately".

Factors to consider when designing the scheme

The effectiveness of a diesel scrappage scheme will depend on its precise configuration. There are three issues in particular that the Government has to consider: first, how it is going to pay for it; second, how it is going to target it geographically to ensure the scheme eases pollution in hotspots; third, what types of vehicle trade will be eligible for a grant.

First, a diesel scrappage scheme has the potential to be very expensive, unless it is part of a suite of policies that is revenue neutral. One suggestion is to increase Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) on new diesel vehicles to fund the scrappage scheme. This would also serve to disincentivise purchases of new diesels, most of which continue to fail to achieve EU air pollution limits when tested under real-world conditions. Another approach could be to levy a “toxicity charge” on motorists entering pollution hotspots in old, polluting vehicles, like the Mayor of London is introducing in the capital later this year. This levy would ensure motorists pay the full social costs of their pollution, as well as providing a revenue to fund charges.

Second, a diesel scrappage scheme must be targeted to remove dirty vehicles from where pollution is illegal. If an old diesel car that only ever drives around rural English villages is taken off the road, then it won’t help bring cities like London and Birmingham into compliance with the law. One approach could be to restrict eligibility for the scheme to vehicles registered to properties in or near a pollution hotspot. However, there would be no guarantee that these will be the only vehicles travelling into hotspots. The Government could also explore ways of linking the scheme to its new Clean Air Zone network so that the cashback is available to those who are affected by their introduction.  

Third, the Government must carefully consider which vehicle trades are eligible for cashback. One condition could be that the old diesel must be exchanged for an ultra-low emission vehicle, such as a pure electric car. But some drivers of old diesel cars may want to scrap their car altogether and switch to just cycling or using public transport. Others may still need a vehicle with an internal combustion engine because of the long distances they are driving. But while a petrol car would reduce air pollution relative to a diesel, it would not help cut carbon emissions, another important government policy objective. The less flexible the scheme is, the fewer old diesels it will successfully take off the road.


If implemented correctly, this policy could form a big part of the Government’s response to the air pollution problem. It should complement smart regulation, such as an increase in the number of low emission zones. Bright Blue has campaigned for central government to devolve more powers and funding to English cities to enable them to set up low emission zones in pollution hotspots.

Replacing diesels in the vehicle pool is a major challenge: there are over 11 million diesel cars on the roads in the UK, or 38% of the whole car fleet. In terms of new vehicles, sales of diesels have started to decrease, with the most recent data showing a 4% drop relative to the same month in 2016. This is gradually unwinding efforts by policymakers since the 1990s that encouraged diesel over petrol, because of perceived lower carbon emissions. For instance, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown cut vehicles taxes for diesels in the 2001 Budget.

The benefits of this shift away from diesel are broader than the purely environmental. As the industrial strategy confirmed last month, ultra-low emission vehicles are a priority sector for the Government, and crucial to the UK’s long-term economic prosperity. Now is the time for the Government to be ambitious with its domestic policy framework, so that it can establish a leading position in these new technologies.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue