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Air pollution nosedives due to coronavirus lockdown

Empty London street during lockdown

Air pollution has dropped dramatically since the UK went into lockdown. Some cities have seen a 60 percent fall in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to the BBC.

This follows yesterday’s news that the levels of NO2 have almost halved in Southampton, with the cleaner air attributed to the reduction in traffic and flights, plus the suspension of cruises. The city is the cruise capital of Europe.

The UK has been in lockdown for two weeks in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. As of yesterday, 55,242 people have tested positive for COVID-19, with 6,159 confirmed deaths.

The government has urged people to avoid travelling unless it is essential. Indeed, people are advised to only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home).

This has led to reduced traffic, especially in towns and cities. The BBC has analysed air pollution since 23 March, compared to the same period in 2019. Most of the air quality monitoring stations have recorded a 50 percent fall in NO2 emissions.

BBC air pollution table

‘Much lower levels of NO2’

William Bloss, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC: “What we’re seeing in the lockdown… is the reductions in road traffic in our cities translating into much lower levels of NO2.

“We’re seeing the reductions are greatest in areas most heavily-influenced by road traffic, so city centres, roads in London, Birmingham and other urban centres.”

Environmental campaigners are using the plummeting levels of air pollution to call for permanent change. Jenny Bates of Friends of the Earth, said: “Seeing this drop in air pollution shows that less traffic can quickly lead to cleaner air.

“Once this dreadful situation is over, we don’t want to rush to go back to where we were or worse, and we can’t have an accelerated return to business as usual. We can have a better, cleaner future for ourselves and the planet.”

London during lockdown

‘Best possible air quality’

In a separate development, the Air Quality Expert Group, working on behalf of Defra, is searching for links between air pollution and the coronavirus. Questions asked include how might public exposure to air pollution have changed as a result of the lockdown, and how might altered emissions affect summer air quality.

John Newington, head of evidence, air quality and industrial emissions, Defra said: “Defra would ask the research community to support the UK government in its efforts to manage air pollution risk and impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Evidence and insight into possible changes to the factors that control air pollution will help us to refine and improve how we deliver the best possible air quality for the UK.”

Electric vehicles ARE cleaner than petrol cars, report claims

Driving test change for electric cars

Electric cars are less emission-intensive than their fossil fuel counterparts in the majority of countries. That’s according to scientists from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge.

They found that in 95 percent of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a conventional petrol car. It divided the world into 59 regions to account for differences in power generation and technology.

In 53 of these regions – including the whole of Europe, the U.S. and China – they found that electric cars and heat pumps are less emission-intensive. These 53 regions represent 95 percent of global transport and heating demand.

Some studies have questioned the effectiveness of electric cars in the challenge to reduce carbon emissions. Detractors have pointed to the energy consumed during electric vehicle production, along with the electricity used during recharging.

However, Dr Jean-Francois Mercure at the University of Exeter, said that the “last few debatable cases will soon disappear”.

The study projects that by 2050, every second car could be electric, helping to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatons per year. This is the equivalent to the CO2 emissions of Russia.

It also claims that average lifetime emissions from electric cars are up to 70 percent lower than petrol in countries like Sweden and France, where most electricity is sourced from renewables and nuclear. In the UK, emissions from electric cars are 30 percent lower.

‘We should choose electric cars’

Making the switch to electric car

Dr Mercure said: “We started this work a few years ago, and policy-makers in the UK and abroad have shown a lot of interest in the results. The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil-fuel alternatives.

The lead author of the study, the University of Nijmegen’s Dr Florian Knobloch, added: “In other words, the idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around.

“Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths. We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and heating systems.

“Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases. This insight should be very useful for policy-makers.“

Switch to electric ‘without any regrets’

On-street electric car chargepoints

The electric car industry still faces many challenges if it’s to meet the study’s 2050 forecast. Many consumers perceive electric cars to be too expensive, although the launch of new EVs in 2020 will help to improve matters. There’s also the ongoing issue of range anxiety and a required shift in attitudes, not to mention the short- to medium-term effect of the coronavirus.

“Taking into account emissions from manufacturing and ongoing energy use, it’s clear that we should encourage the switch to electric cars and household heat pumps without any regrets,” Dr Knobloch concluded.

The paper published in Nature Sustainability can be accessed here.

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September launch for the Leeds Clean Air Zone

The Leeds Clean Air Zone (CAZ) will go live on 28 September 2020. The CAZ was due to come into operation in January, but Leeds City Council has confirmed the new date.

From 28 September, buses, coaches, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), taxis and private hire vehicles that fail to meet minimum emissions standards will be charged for entering certain parts of the city.

Non-compliant HGVs, buses and coaches will be charged £50 per day for entering the CAZ, with taxis and private hire vehicles subject to a £12.50 daily charge. Leeds City Council says the money will be used for covering the cost of the scheme, supporting owners of affected vehicles and the creation of other air improvement measures in the city.

Around 300 cameras will be placed at 100 junctions throughout the city.

Since plans for a CAZ were announced, the city has seen ‘significant improvements in air quality’ as operators prepare for the zone’s introduction. The council says air pollution on the A660 has fallen below legal limits as a result of lower emission buses being used on the route.

To date, £5.4 million has been awarded to support local businesses switch to cleaner vehicles, with an additional £3.1 million earmarked to help other operators.

Leeds Clean Air Zone map

As can be seen from this map, the Leeds CAZ extends from Farsley in the west to Colton in the east, and Moortown in the north to Hunslet in the south. These are approximate boundaries, so you’re advised to check the map for more information.

The Holbeck (Jack Lane), Pudsey and Seacroft industrial areas will be exempt from CAZ charges until after 31 December 2024.

‘Time for businesses to prepare’

James Lewis, the council executive for air quality, said: “Having been forced to delay the introduction of the zone last year due to delays to government systems, I am delighted that we are now able to confirm a go-live date for the Leeds Clean Air Charging Zone giving affected businesses clarity to help them prepare for the zone’s introduction.

“We’re already seeing improvements to our city’s air quality thanks to the thousands of drivers that have already switched to less-polluting vehicles. As more businesses switch to cleaner vehicles to avoid charges we will no doubt continue to deliver even more improvements.

“With six months before the zone takes effect, it is now time for businesses to prepare. I would strongly encourage those who may be affected to check their vehicle and find out more about the financial support and exemptions available by visiting our website.”

The Birmingham Clean Air Zone is expected to launch in July. Last week, the council opened applications for temporary exemption permits. Click here to read more about Clean Air Zones.

Petrol and diesel ban consultation

Have your say on the proposed petrol and diesel ban

Petrol and diesel ban consultation

The government has launched a consultation on plans to bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel cars to 2035.

A ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars was expected to come into force in 2040. Earlier this month, it was reported that this ban could be brought forward – and would include hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

In an online document, the government said that a ban ‘could be earlier if a faster transition appears feasible’. There are rumours of a 2030 deadline, although much will depend on the results of the consultation.

The government says it is seeking views on the following:

  • The phase-out date
  • The definition of what should be phased out
  • Barriers to achieving the above proposals
  • The impact of these ambitions on different sectors of industry and society
  • What measures are required by government and others to achieve the earlier phase out date

‘Confusion and instability’

Diesel use down for the first time in a decade

The industry is calling for clarity. In response to the recently announced 7.3 percent fall in the UK new car market, Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), said: “The new car market is a key driver of the UK’s overall economy, so another month of decline is unsettling.

“Consumer confidence is not returning to the market and will not be helped by government’s decision to add further confusion and instability by moving the goalposts on the end of sale of internal combustion engine cars.

“While ambition is understandable, as we must address climate change and air quality concerns, blanket bans do not help short-term consumer confidence. To be successful, government must lead the transition with an extensive and appropriately funded package of fiscal incentives, policies and investment to drive demand. We want to deliver air quality and environmental improvements now but need a strong market to do so.”

Consultation open until 29 May

The SMMT is demanding an extension to the Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG), which is set to expire in March, arguing that it should be widened to include plug-in hybrid vehicles.

It also wants to see what it calls ‘an extensive package of government support’ for consumers, manufacturers and the charging network.

Consumers have until the end of 29 May 2020 to have their say on the date of the proposed ban. Details of where to send comments can be found here.

Roundabouts good for your health

Are roundabouts good for your health?

Roundabouts good for your health

Roundabouts could be good for your health. That’s according to a recent study of air pollution levels.

Scientists from the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and the Lancaster University Environment Centre looked at the UK’s 146 most populous urban areas.

They wanted to discover if there’s a correlation between a town’s layout and the levels of pollution.

The 146 largest conurbations were ranked by their NOx emission levels, with the data overlaid with the size of the population. Taking this into account, Milton Keynes is the city ‘most improved by urban form’.

‘Roundabouts do two things’

Speaking to the BBC, lead author of the study, Professor Rob Mackenzie, said: “The Milton Keynes roundabouts do two things – they reduce stop-start driving which reduces production of pollution, and they make space to help the pollution dilute and mix away.

“Milton Keynes has taken up much more space for its people and its transport which means the pollution it produces is diluted in a greater space.”

Just 23 miles down the road in Luton, the story is less positive. The town’s compact and built-up nature means fumes are unable to disperse as easily.

“Luton is much more compact so it doesn’t gain from that dilution benefit. The biggest effect green spaces have on air pollution in urban areas is to provide space for that pollution to disperse.”

Roundabout in Milton Keynes

Crucially, the two towns produce roughly the same amount of pollution for their size. But the air in Luton is much dirtier, because the pollution is trapped by tight roads and building. Conversely, the roundabouts, boulevards and open roads of Milton Keynes allow the poisonous gases to escape.

Professor Mackenzie said towns like Luton cannot “rely on the dilution effect of it being spread out to avoid the problem”.

“I’d be advocating that Luton recognise that their particular situation puts them at a relative disadvantage, so they ought to work even harder at driving down emissions from traffic.”

The following tables show the best and worst urban areas when it comes to dispersing pollution. The rankings are based on the percentage change relative to the 146 largest areas in the country.

Top 10 most improved by urban form

Urban areaPercentage change
1. Milton Keynes22%
2. Stoke-on-Trent21%
3. Weybridge20%
4. Aldershot19%
5. Macclesfield18%
6. Livingston18%
7. Swansea16%
8. Manchester16%
9. High Wycombe14%
10. Birmingham14%

Top 10 least improved by urban form

Urban areaPercentage change
1. Luton-24%
2. Crawley-15%
3. Leamington Spa-13%
4. Cardiff-12%
5. Coventry-12%
6. Stevenage-12%
7. Tamworth-12%
8. Bradford-12%
9. Oxford-12%
10. Worcester-12%
Hand car washing action needed

Hand car washing industry branded a ‘national disgrace’

Hand car washing action needed

Non-compliance with labour regulations “is endemic in the hand car washing industry”. This is according to Matthew Taylor, the government’s interim director of labour market enforcement.

He was speaking at a Resolution Foundation labour market enforcement event in Westminster, where he called for “specific action and plan” to tackle the problems in the car washing sector.

A report in the FT says hand car washes have gained market share from machine car washes. They’re dominated by small operators employing eastern European migrants. The sector is rife with underpayment, the mistreatment of workers, health and safety failing and environmental issues.

A licensing scheme to protect car wash workers would be the first for the sector outside agriculture and food processing. The move would be welcomed by the car wash industry.

Research conducted for the Car Wash Association (CWA) confirmed that less than five percent of the 10,000 or more third-party hand car washes are located on operational forecourts. This means they are typically located on brownfield and greenfield sites, car parks of major retailers and disused forecourts.

The report in the FT points to a study of 45 car washes in Nottingham and Leicester. Many operated from unsuitable premises, which left dangerous chemicals flowing into nearby water courses. Staff were also provided with ineffective protective clothing and equipment when handling hazardous materials.

‘A serious social blight’

Hand car wash in the UK

Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers and Car Wash Associations, said: “We are excited that government, through the Office for Labour Market Enforcement, is at last proposing practical measures to combat the fast growing, mostly illegal, trade of non-compliant hand car washes.

“It is a national disgrace that the UK has become the ‘go to’ country in Europe for non-compliant hand car washes that openly flout tax, labour abuse and environmental regulations. They are a serious social blight caused by ineffective enforcement and contrast starkly with countries like Germany, Austria and Benelux, which have virtually none.

“The sooner this new government tackles this issue, the sooner will our rivers and countryside be freed from toxic chemical waste and labour abuse will be eliminated. We enthusiastically welcome Mr Taylor’s call for a licensing scheme.”

Changes to the licensing of car washes would require ministerial action. The Home Office said it will ‘continue to work closely with law enforcement partners such as the GLAA (Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) and businesses to prevent modern slavery and bring perpetrators to justice’.

Anyone who suspects a labour provider is exploiting the welfare and rights of workers can report the issue to the GLAA.

Dirty vehicles to be banned from Geneva

Dirty vehicles to be banned from Geneva

A new environmental zone will see the dirtiest vehicles banned from the centre of Geneva, Switzerland, and the surrounding area.

From 15 January 2020, a temporary zone will be activated when air pollution in the Swiss city is at its highest. It will be operational from 6am until 10pm.

Vehicles will be measured on their environmental performance and must display one of six coloured Stick’Air vignettes. Green is for zero emission vehicles, while grey is for the least environmentally friendly cars. The emergency services and drivers with disabilities are exempt from the scheme.

Initially, vehicles displaying the grey vignette will be banned from the environmental zone during the period of peak pollution. If the smog persists, the ban will extend to vehicles showing the brown sticker, then orange, yellow and purple.

The stickers cost 5 Swiss francs (£4) and are valid for the life of the vehicle. Drivers who do not display a vignette or enter the city during the smog alert will be fined 500 francs (£400). Commercial vehicles will be granted a two-year transitional period to comply with the new law.

Under the regulations, the authorities could also introduce an 80km/h (50mph) speed limit on surrounding motorways, free public transport to encourage locals and tourists to leave their cars at home, and a ban on outdoor fires.

Geneva clean air stickers

‘Right to breathe healthy air’

Antonio Hodgers, a Geneva councillor, said: “We have adopted a compromise between economic freedom and the right to breathe healthy air.”

Nearly 500,000 people live in the canton of Geneva, with around 200,000 people living in the city. This is the first environmental zone of its kind in the country, although Geneva’s proximity to France and Italy, plus the fact that it is home to more than 130 multinational companies, makes it a particularly high profile case.

It also plays host to a major international motor show

The stickers can be purchased from council offices and petrol stations. More information can be found here.

Motorists want tougher penalties for idling drivers

Tougher fines for idling drivers

There are calls for drivers who leave their engines running when parked to be fined.

Seventy-two percent of the drivers questioned in a new survey want local councils to tackle the problem, while 44 percent believe officials should have the power to issue fines if they refuse.

Under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988(4), a driver can be fined £20 for a stationary idling offence, but few councils enforce this.

In June, the government announced a public consultation on proposals to impose tougher penalties on idling drivers.

Then transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “We are determined to crack down on drivers who pollute our communities by leaving their engines running, particularly outside school gates where our children are breathing in this toxic air.

“Putting a stop to idling is an easy way to drive down dangerously high levels of pollution, reducing its impact on the environment and our health.”

Cost ahead of the environment

Traffic in Bristol

Around a quarter of the drivers surveyed by the RAC believe motorists should be told to switch off WITHOUT issuing a fine, whereas two percent think offenders should be fined without any warning.

It would appear that drivers are becoming more sensitive to the issue of vehicle emissions and the impact on air quality in our towns and cities. Indeed, more than half of the drivers surveyed said they are more concerned than they were three years ago.

However, when asked WHY they would not leave their engines idling when parked, a financial benefit was put ahead of the environment. Thirty-seven percent said they switch off to save a little on fuel, while 35 percent said they do it to improve air quality.

Just under a third claim it never occurs to them to turn off.

Like the carrier bag charge

delays and congestion up in 2018

Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “It is clear from our research that the vast majority of drivers are far more aware of the impact of vehicle emissions than they were three years ago.

“They are conscious of pollution from parked vehicles running their engines needlessly to the point they want to see local councils taking some form of action against those who do this. At the very least they would like a council official to speak to those who do it and ask them to switch off.

“Councils already have the powers to deal with this problem, but few are currently doing so. Many of the drivers we questioned would like to see some firm action taken against offenders. This is no doubt needed to bring about a change in behaviour.

“You could liken the current situation with engine idling to that of taking your own carrier bags to the supermarket: everyone knew it was the right thing to do, but few of us did it until a compulsory charge was introduced. While the law is already in place for idling, enforcement is limited, if not non-existent.

“The presence of enforcement officers and ‘no engine idling’ signs, complete with penalties, must be the next step in making our urban environments better for everyone who lives, drives and works in them.”

Extinction Rebellion uses dirty diesel for climate change protest

Extinction Rebellion fire engine

Turning up to protest about climate change in a dirty diesel is a little like going to thrash metal concert and complaining about the noise.

But as Extinction Rebellion arrived in Whitehall in a 21-year-old fire truck to paint the town red, it became abundantly clear that the protesters hadn’t considered the irony of their choice of transport. After all, an 8.3-litre diesel engine is about as welcome in central London as a fox in a henhouse.

From one drama to another

It would appear that Extinction Rebellion paid £5,000 for the former Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service Dennis Sabre back in August. Cheaper than a Dacia Sandero, then, but not as good for the planet.

It’s not the first time the fire engine has been in the public eye: the eBay ad lists an appearance on Holby City as one of its selling points. You could say it’s gone from one drama to another.

The old Dennis diesel sat outside Treasury smoking like a 70s snooker player as the Extinction Rebellion protestors struggled to contain their hose. It turned the protest into something that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Top Gear, as the fake blood coated the steps and pavement outside the Grade One listed building.

Forget London’s Burning, this was more like London’s Turning… Red.

Clearly, climate change is a serious business. Only a chump with rubbish hair and a penchant for walls would deny that we need to do something to reverse the damage that’s being done to our planet. We can all play a part.

But buying an 8.3-litre diesel fire engine in Northampton and then driving it into central London isn’t going to save the world.

With a strong wind behind it and a clear road ahead, the Dennis Sabre could probably muster 8, maybe 9 miles per gallon. Fine if you’re putting out fires or starring alongside Tina Hobley, but not so great when you’re protesting against “the vast sums [the government] pours into fossil fuel exploration”.

Maybe they should have used a Green Goddess…

Ban regular car sales by 2035 or face ‘dire consequences’, says report

The government should not wait until 2040 to ban the sale of ‘conventional’ new cars and vans.

That’s one of a number of hard-hitting recommendations laid out by the Science and Technology Committee in its report on clean growth.

“The UK is not even on course to meet its existing legally binding targets for 2023 and 2032”, it says, and petrol and diesel cars are at the centre of the problem.

In 2017, the government announced plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, with all conventional vehicles banned from the road by 2050. But environmental groups have called for the ban to be brought forward.

Last year, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said that it “may be necessary for the sales of petrol and diesel vehicles to end by 2035”.

It called for ultra-low emission vehicles to account for 60 percent of the new car market by 2030 to “keep open the possibility of 100 percent of new sales by 2035”.

But the government isn’t doing enough, says the Science and Technology Committee, and “urgent action is required to reverse the current policy trend of cut backs and slow progress”.

Ban cars by 2035 at the latest

ban cars sooner

Ten areas of shortfall have been identified in a wide-ranging report. The government has been slammed for not delivering a promised White Paper on ‘The future of the energy market’, and there are concerns over the complexity of obtaining planning permission for onshore wind farms.

The cut in the plug-in car grant for the lowest-emission cars, the abolition of the grant for other low-emission cars and the freeze in fuel duty are the shortfalls relating to cars.

The Committee has made a series of recommendations to get the UK ready for net-zero by 2050. The priorities for transport include:

  • Bring forward the date of the proposed ban on the sales of petrol and diesel cars to 2035 at the latest.
  • Ensure the ban covers hybrid vehicles.
  • Reconsider the fiscal incentives for consumers to purchase new AND used low emission vehicles.
  • Accelerate the deployment of electric vehicle charge points.
  • Introduce measures to ensure that charge points are interoperable and compatible with a smart energy system.

Crucially, the report says that the government “should not aim to achieve emissions reductions simply by replacing existing vehicles with lower-emission versions”. 

“Their manufacturer generates substantial emissions,” it warns, so “widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation”.

‘Dire consequences for the environment’

Norman Lamb MP, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said: “Parliament has declared a climate emergency.

“The worrying effects of climate change, such as heatwaves, wildfires and flooding are already occurring at an alarming rate and will have a huge impact on future generations. 

“If governments across the world fail to act, it will have dire consequences for the environment and generations to come.

“The scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated.”

‘Giving up on emerging science and technology’

Motoring organisations have been quick to shift the spotlight away from personal cars, with the decarbonisation of light commercial vehicles viewed as a priority.

Edmund King, AA president, told BBC News: “Stating that widespread personal vehicle ownership isn’t compatible with significant decarbonisation seems to be giving up on emerging science and technology.

“Technology is developing at a rapid rate with great potential from more efficient electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

“More emphasis should be going into renewable energy and greener vehicle production rather than higher fuel duty or banning hybrids, as the report recommends.

“The fastest growth in traffic is by vans due to internet deliveries so more technological effort should be put into decarbonising that sector as a priority.”