Air quality Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Joining up government action

1.Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions. The Cabinet Office must establish clearly with all government departments their duty to consider air quality in developing policies. Furthermore, Ministers must tell the public more clearly how it is co-ordinating action since the work of the inter-ministerial Clean Growth Group is opaque; we recommend that the Cabinet Office report to Parliament before 21 July 2016 on the actions it plans over the coming year to join up effective action across government. (Paragraph 9)

Defra’s air quality strategy

2.Defra’s plans focus too narrowly on nitrogen dioxide pollution, principally from traffic. If the full health and environmental benefits of cleaner air are to be achieved, Defra must set out plans to cut emissions of all air pollutants and from all sources, including from the transport, industry, energy and farming sectors. Plans must aim to clean up indoor as well as outdoor air. (Paragraph 13)

3.We recommend that the Department publish by the end of 2016 a comprehensive strategy for improving air quality and report annually to Parliament on progress in delivering its objectives. (Paragraph 14)

Cost-benefit analysis

4.Defra’s policies aim to cut air pollution to achieve legal limits yet threats to health and the environment remain even at lower levels. Defra must calculate whether cost-effective means can be developed for meeting tougher targets. This calculation must be based on robust evidence about the benefits of cleaner air against the costs of policies needed to achieve it, such as constraints on new development. (Paragraph 17)

5.Better information is needed; we welcome the Natural Capital Committee’s work to identify and place a value on the contribution of clean air to society. Defra must develop, as soon as possible after the Natural Capital Committee produces its findings, practical tools for policy-makers to use in evaluating the costs and benefits of air quality proposals and ensure that the reasoning base for these tools is made publicly available. (Paragraph 18)

6.Defra’s policies must provide incentives for voluntary action as a first option before additional regulation is considered. Voluntary approaches can lower pollution in the most cost-effective ways since industry can focus its efforts on actions that work best for specific activities rather than on demonstrating compliance with rules. (Paragraph 20)

Reinvigorating government policy

7.The Government must accord poor air quality a priority commensurate with the toll on the nation’s health and environment. Emission reduction targets must be based on scientific evidence and strategies for pollution reduction based on effective cost-benefit analyses. Ministers must set out with absolute clarity the actions required across government if the public is to be reassured that the Government is committed to improving air quality quickly and substantially. (Paragraph 21)

Defra’s nitrogen dioxide plans

8.Defra’s plans for Clean Air Zones will impose a ‘one size fits all’ model on cities from Southampton to Leeds. The Department must give local authorities greater flexibility in order that they can tailor measures to best meet their local circumstances. For example, cities may find it more effective to limit vehicle access at certain times of day or to target specific bus routes rather than adopt blanket access proposals. (Paragraph 33)

9.Charging powers are planned for only the five cities with the worst pollution yet dozens of areas breach EU limits: we recommend that Defra extends these powers to other councils in its Clean Air Zone legislation so that communities which wish to do so can tackle pollution hot-spots in this way. (Paragraph 34)

10.We further recommend that Defra consults interested parties including local authorities and publishes revised proposals by 21 July 2016 which address concerns raised in this report. Alongside these, the Government must publish proposals to make it easier for local authorities to use powers over traffic movement and new development to tackle air pollution as and when the need arises, whether inside or outside Clean Air Zones. (Paragraph 35)

Funding for local action

11.Since Defra’s plans rely on local action to cut pollution, councils must be given support to implement programmes to encourage people to drive less and use public transport and cycle and walk more. Defra must ensure that councils are recompensed for any costs of implementing new Clean Air Zones which they are not able to recoup from reasonable charges on drivers. Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government must also preserve funding for wider programmes, such as those supported by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which can demonstrate they deliver benefits in a cost-effective manner. (Paragraph 40)

EU emissions tests

12.Although it has taken far too long to agree, we welcome the adoption of a new EU real-world vehicle testing regime since current laboratory tests have routinely and significantly under-estimated emission levels. However, the new limits allow a generous leeway for measurement error and are set above current levels. (Paragraph 45)

13.The UK Government must in future negotiations argue robustly for lower EU limits which will deliver reductions on the road equal to, or better than, current laboratory limits. Tougher limits are needed to drive urgent action by the automotive industry to both improve monitoring and to reduce emissions as fast as technically possible. (Paragraph 46)

Impact of EU test inaccuracies on Defra plans

14.We note that Defra models are based on cautious assumptions about the extent to which the new EU vehicle testing regime would deliver NO₂ reductions on the road. However, a history of failure to translate theoretical standards into cleaner air in practice means that Defra must keep its assumptions under review. (Paragraph 48)

15.We recommend that Defra publishes: first, by the end of 2016 an analysis of the impact on UK air quality of Euro 6 vehicle emissions standards; and secondly, by the end of 2018, an analysis of the impact of new real-world driving emissions tests being introduced from 2017. Should either of these reports show that EU standards are in practice failing to have the impact assumed under current plans, Defra must issue revised plans including stronger measures to tackle vehicle emissions. (Paragraph 49)

Dieselgate: Volkswagen ‘defeat devices’

16.Volkswagen’s use of illegal devices has rightly caused consumers to be sceptical about its claims on vehicle performance. The company’s different treatment of UK and US customers is also unlikely to be seen as fair. Volkswagen’s evidence did not persuade us that the company had fully learnt lessons about the need to be completely transparent if it is to regain customers’ trust in its products. (Paragraph 52)

17.The Government must assess whether systems are sufficiently rigorous to give customers confidence that a claim about a vehicle’s performance is true. Where proven to have misled customers, the company should pay appropriate compensation. The Government must act on the findings of the EU’s review of emissions testing and the outcome of Volkswagen’s review of its use of defeat devices to remedy any deficiencies in consumer protection regulation. The Government must also seek at a European level a review of the penalties applicable if deliberately cheating the emissions testing system, and work to ensure that these penalties are robust enough to provide a meaningful deterrent for manufacturers. (Paragraph 53)

New road transport technologies

18.At the current rate of change it will be many years before ultra-low emissions vehicles replace all the types of vehicles currently causing pollution. Faster progress could be made if further measures were introduced to encourage people to buy newer, unfamiliar, and in many cases more costly, technologies. (Paragraph 59)

19.We recommend that the Government launches a diesel scrappage scheme giving grants to cut the cost of a low-emission vehicle for an owner scrapping their diesel car or van. We think it sensible to target vehicles more than 10 years old because of their high pollution levels but HM Treasury should undertake in the next six months a study to establish the details of the scheme. The study must establish in time for measures to be brought forward in the next Budget: first, the emissions levels of vehicles eligible to be bought or scrapped so the scheme achieves sufficient air quality improvements, and secondly, the level of grant necessary to incentivise sufficient take-up at the lowest cost to the public purse. (Paragraph 60)

20.We endorse the Government’s support for a wide range of technologies, including the provision of fiscal incentives such as lower fuel duty rates for a variety of cleaner fuels. Different technologies, such as gas-powered or hybrid vehicles on the one hand or fully electric vehicles on the other, will offer the optimum solution for different transport needs. However, the Government should not allow the need to maintain technologically neutral approaches to inhibit policy support for the research, development and implementation of low-emission technologies, particularly where there is a strong scientific case for such support. (Paragraph 62)

21.Defra’s policies must support technological developments to reduce particulates generated by the wear of vehicle brakes and tyres; the Government must commission by 21 July 2016 an assessment of any policy or research gaps on the level of emissions from these causes and methods for reducing them. The Department must ensure that EU and UK regulations reflect emerging scientific evidence on pollution from wear and tear of vehicle operation. (Paragraph 64)

Shipping emissions

22.Shipping is responsible for producing only a small proportion of emissions, but in pollution hot-spots such as London action is needed to tackle emissions from all sources. Local authorities must calculate the additional impact on air quality of all new development; planning permissions for new shipping facilities must require appropriate mitigation measures from developers. This should include, where practicable, a requirement to provide infrastructure to supply electricity to ships at berth. (Paragraph 67)

Tackling air pollution from agriculture

23.The agricultural sector must step up action to reduce its contribution to national air pollution. At a time of financial pressure, support for farmers to adopt improved farming methods will be more effective than additional regulation. Decreased emissions are a win-win for the environment and for farmers, who can cut their bills by minimising nitrogen losses. (Paragraph 77)

24.We recommend that Defra surveys by the end of 2016, and in partnership with the National Farmers’ Union, the extent to which the most effective air pollution approaches are being used on English farms. The Department should publish the data and report to this Committee on how it will use the information to better target, and if necessary increase, best practice support for farmers. This research will also facilitate constructive dialogue between the NFU and Defra on the technical feasibility of the current EU National Emissions Ceiling Directive targets for ammonia reduction. (Paragraph 78)

25.Relatively low-cost interventions can reduce emissions. With finances tight, farmers are more likely to take action if Defra can provide incentives for action. The Department must publish plans by September 2016 for using CAP funds more effectively to achieve air pollution objectives. In developing this plan, Defra should identify any EU constraints on directing funds in the optimum way and, where necessary, argue in Brussels for the removal of such barriers under the next CAP reforms. (Paragraph 80)

Greenhouse gas emissions

26.The farming sector must step up action to cut methane emissions. The livestock sector in particular must do more if it wishes to resist arguments that reducing meat consumption is necessary to protect the environment. Whether through improved feed to cut methane emitted by cows or better manure spreading techniques, all farmers need to minimise their impact on climate change. Defra, learning from successful international approaches, should roll out by the end of 2016 a programme to support the spread of best practice to all farmers. (Paragraph 84)

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25 April 2016