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Cars and Air Pollution in the UK
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The following article was published in November 2006.

Cars and Air Pollution in the UK

One of most interesting statements in the recent Thames Gateway Bridge report from TfL is the following statement: “Private cars (at which FOE’s hostility seems to be focussed) constitute only 10% of total UK CO2 emissions, and the position appears to be both under control and improving, largely due to technology”.  The percentage of CO2 emissions generated by road transport of the total emissions of 170 million tonnes in 2004 was 20%. Roughly about half of that is generated by cars, with a quarter produced by HGVs, a smaller amount by LGVs and a minor fraction by buses.  However the proportion generated by buses and taxis in London is probably relatively higher although exact figures are difficult to locate. 

Although new cars are relatively less polluting, as they are more fuel efficient and have better filters, the total amount of pollution generated by them is not falling as there are more cars on the road. However, the pollution from goods vehicles has been rising, and that from air transport has been rocketing upwards.  

Incidentally the largest coal fired power station in the UK (Drax) generates more CO2 than all the passenger cars combined (21 million tonnes versus 19 million tonnes).  

What to Do About It? 

Here are your editor’s comments on the problem of air pollution: 

Global warming may or may not be happening – I am one of the sceptics.  But reducing air pollution, particularly of those pollutants that are known to affect health, is surely a sensible thing to do so long as it can be done at reasonable cost.  Improving the air quality in cities such as London will make life much pleasanter and most people would be willing to pay something for that.  

But clearly, tinkering at the fringes by making minor adjustment to the rates of car vehicle tax, or introducing a higher London congestion charge for more polluting vehicles is not going to make a real difference. We don’t need “gesture politics” – what we need is some real steps to cut pollutants in total. 

Therefore the really big polluters such as power stations and industrial processes must be tackled. At the same time, transport emissions must also be improved, and that should not be done by simply stopping people from travelling, or attempting to move them all to public transport (the latter would not make much difference anyway) but by much more aggressive encouragement of technological solutions. Cars, LGVs, HGVs, buses and taxis can all be made a lot more efficient and cleaner than they are at present – in fact some cars are already remarkably improved. Even people who like to buy high performance or larger vehicles could have their needs satisfied – just look at the Lexus GS450h reviewed in a previous edition – but they need strong, but reasonable, financial incentives to make the change.   

Clearly a high fuel cost would help but it is probably not sufficient and causes problems for rural communities who have fewer pollution problems anyway. Perhaps better to have a more aggressive car license duty in terms of higher rates for more polluting vehicles. But both of these approaches are very blunt instruments and cause problems for people who have recently bought vehicles unless they are phased in gradually or only applied to new vehicles.  

In addition they are unselective about the type of pollution being generated. Carbon dioxide is not nearly as detrimental to health as other pollutants such as particulates or NO2 so the wrong incentives may actually make matters worse – for example they might encourage the use of more diesel engines which may be more “economical” but are a lot worse for certain pollutants. 

An alternative approach is simply to direct that cars must meet certain improved standards over time, if they are to be sold at all. Or you can have a “manufacturer overall average” target that they have to meet, as they have to in the USA. Such targets can be made pollutant specific of course, not just based on CO2 emissions. Such targets would probably require much more specific commitment from the European Union however and would take some years to implement.  

Another thing that would help would be to encourage the removal of older vehicles from our roads by suitable financial incentives. Expediting the renewal of the vehicle fleet, particularly of older HGVs, LGVs and taxis, would have a significant impact because older vehicles are significantly worse than modern ones in respect to pollution. 

At present, the measures being taken are in my view too weak and too mixed up with illogical emotions to really achieve much. You cannot cut air pollution significantly by simply reducing car usage, as has been well demonstrated by the London congestion tax. You need to encourage technological improvements much more forcefully such as using electric or hybrid powered buses and delivery vehicles.  Note that the EU set a target of 120g CO2/km for 2010 for cars, but that target is unlikely to be met unless more vigorous action is taken at an international level.  

But any such steps should not just target private vehicles but even more importantly goods vehicles, buses and taxis.  There should be no separate attack on the private motorist and the reductions should apply across all vehicle types.

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