following article was published in November 2006.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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