Exhaust emissions

Opinion – Checking your exhaust emissions: mission impossible?

Exhaust emissionsI don’t know about you, but to me 2018 feels like it’s going to be a watershed year when it comes to public opinion on toxic air. In the UK, as in other parts of Europe, there is now massive pressure to bring air quality in built-up areas back to acceptable, safe and legal limits. Residents are acutely aware of the effects of vehicle emissions, thousands of column inches have been written on the topic and politicians are having to respond (not least following a High Court case that, naturally, got the attention of mainstream media). 

The result? While there’s still precious little concrete detail for the average motorist to get their head around, a series of Clean Air Zones in towns and cities across the UK are now very likely (and, depending where you live, an absolute certainty).

How we’re all going to be affected by these zones no-one (yet) knows. There are some compelling arguments that the oldest, dirtiest vehicles should be taken off the road first. But in those areas where the air is filthiest, there’s a very real prospect private drivers might face charges or restrictions when Clean Air Zones are introduced. Whether they are affected will depend on the Euro emissions standard of the vehicle they’re driving.

So here’s one of the first snags, and it’s a big one. Pretty much nobody I’ve spoken to outside the world of motoring has any idea what the Euro 4, 5, 6 standards are all about, let alone which category their car falls into. And that’s understandable – the Euro system has been quietly working away in the background for around for 25 years, ensuring that each time we upgrade our car we’re probably getting behind the wheel of something a little cleaner. How efficiently we all drive, of course, is another thing entirely…

But things are changing, and fast. Within months, thousands if not millions of drivers will start questioning which Euro standard their car meets to see if they’re affected by Clean Air Zones. And right now it is difficult to reliably check this. The current advice – including from the UK government – remains to speak to your vehicle’s manufacturer. But this isn’t good enough. It took five days for a manufacturer I spoke to to confirm that a 2015 used car I thought was going to be Euro 6 compliant was actually just Euro 5. You don’t find it on most V5C forms and it’s not routinely captured by any government department.


The Euro system isn’t perfect by any means. Some new cars still emit greater levels of harmful pollutants than they should, as sharply brought into focus by ‘dieselgate’. At the same time, some cars appear to perform much better than you might expect them to (mentioning no names here, but check the EQUA Index).  However, it’s the system we have, and it looks like the only means councils will use – at least to begin with – to decide who is impacted by Clean Air Zones. So let’s at least make sure everyone knows what it is.

The road to clean air doesn’t start and stop with the oldest polluters, though: we’ve all got a responsibility here. Three days a week I take my two small boys to nursery and school along some central Bristol streets that are no doubt plagued by polluted air at peak times (and interestingly, pretty quiet the rest of the time). Sadly, it’s a journey I make by car given the distinct lack of other transport options and I am all too aware that, sitting in a 2011 diesel saloon. I’m a contributor to the problem – regardless of how light my right foot is when driving. It really doesn’t sit well with me when I see mums and dads with buggies and tiny babies on the same level as most car exhausts.

I want to be able to make the right choices, I really do: for the people that live close to where I drive, for my kids, for the planet and, yes, for my wallet. I’m sure I’m not alone. As vehicle emissions is such a complicated topic for anyone to get their head around, the focus for manufacturers and government should be to make it simple for all of us. We have a long way to go, but making the all-important Euro category of our current (and future) vehicle clear would surely be a good start. Is that really too much to ask?

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