Harmful pollutants which affect air quality will be targeted by the Government in a new national fleet procurement strategy.
Central and local government fleets will be expected to “lead by example”, with minimum mandatory standards on emissions for cars, vans, buses and trucks to be published next year.
Private sector suppliers could be forced to follow suit, if the public sector specifies the standards in tenders, as the Government suggests.
Plans to revise Government buying standards were revealed in a consultation document from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
It includes a series of proposals to improve air quality in towns and cities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate consultation is being carried out by the Scottish Government.
The focus will be on cutting nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – part of a group of gases called nitrogen oxides (NOx) – which has had a major impact on air quality, partly due to the dieselisation of fleets over many years.
The DEFRA report says that the Government “will seek to ensure that NOx emissions are taken into account in procurement decisions”.
The new standards will also help procurers make an informed decision as to the size and type of vehicle required, reflecting the area in which the vehicle will be used and the type of usage.
“The expectation is that the revised Government buying standards will reward manufacturers who reduce the carbon and NOx emissions of their vehicles, sending a clear message to the market that it is not only carbon emissions that need to be reduced but also vehicle pollutant emissions,” says the DEFRA report.
Addressing transport emissions is at the core of the Government’s air quality plan, which also includes the nationwide roll-out of clean air zones, such as London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), due to be introduced in the capital from September, 2020.
Although individual local authorities will be left to decide whether to introduce clean air zones in their respective areas, the Government intends to develop a framework that aims to provide clarity and consistency of approach.
Currently, there is a city-by-city approach to dealing with air quality issues.
A UK-wide standard for vehicle entry criteria and related charges for non-compliant vehicles will be essential, according to fleet representative body ACFO.
John Pryor, ACFO chairman, told Fleet News: “ACFO would want complete uniformity without additional red tape in terms of the registration of vehicles.
“The introduction of 20, 30, 40 or more clean air zones nationwide, all operating to different criteria, would be an administrative nightmare.”
DEFRA intends to set out the full framework for clean air zones in early 2016.
“Our ambition is to make the UK a country with some of the very best air quality in the world,” said Elizabeth Truss, the environment secretary.
“Tackling air pollution is a priority for this Government.”
However, the Government has been compelled to take action to improve air quality after it lost a five-year legal battle in the Supreme Court.
Judges labelled its plans to cut illegal levels of air pollution ineffective and ordered DEFRA to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission by December 31, 2015.
Alan Andrews, lawyer at Client Earth, the environmental group that led the legal battle, appealed to fleets to lead the move to improve the UK’s air quality.
“Legal limits for air pollution are being broken by huge margins in towns and cities up and down the country, and that’s largely down to diesel,” he said.
“We would like to see companies lead the way by switching their fleets to ultra-low emission vehicles such as electric and hybrids as soon as possible.”
Scandal highlights harmful effects
The harmful effects of NOx have been brought sharply into focus by the emissions scandal engulfing Volkswagen, Audi, Škoda and Seat.
Based on current data, DEFRA estimates that the death rate in the UK is 4% higher due to NO2 exposure levels – equating to around 23,500 extra deaths per year.
This, in turn, has a massive financial cost to society – around £13 billion per year or 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP), estimates DEFRA.
On average, around 80% of NOx emissions in areas where the UK is exceeding limits are due to transport, although non-transport sources of NO2 are still considerable contributors.
The largest source, however, is caused by emissions from diesel cars and vans, where there has been significant growth in vehicle numbers over the past 10 years, but little focus by regulators and, therefore, manufacturers in NOx emissions.
The latest Euro 6 engine standard, introduced to all new cars from September 2015 changes this.
It sets different standards for petrol and diesel cars. For diesel cars, Euro 6 dramatically drops the permitted level of NOx emitted down to a maximum of 80mg/km compared to the 180mg/km level that was required for cars to meet the previous Euro 5 emissions standards.
The limit for NOx from petrol cars remains at 60mg/km, the same as for the Euro 5 standard.
The Government says one of the main reasons the UK, and 16 other European Union countries, has not met legal air quality limits is that the introduction of increasingly strict standards for NOx emissions have not delivered the expected reductions in real-world use.
It is critical of the existing laboratory-based testing regime for vehicle emissions, saying there is a disparity with real-world motoring.
DEFRA does, however, acknowledge the new Euro 6 standard for diesel HGVs is delivering significant NOx emissions reductions.
The European Commission is hoping to replicate that success for cars and vans, with the introduction of a new ‘real driving emissions’ test standard – the World Light Vehicle Test procedure (WLTP) – is due in 2017, although motor manufacturers want to push that date back to at least 2020.
DEFRA says it “will continue to strongly make the case in Europe for a robust test procedure which applies as soon as possible”.
This plea was echoed by the transport secretary Patrick Mcloughlin at a meeting of European transport ministers in Luxembourg, last week.
He said: “Driving emissions tests that reflect real-world performance must be introduced as quickly as possible.”
In the meantime, the Government hopes that its draft plans, with the help of the fleet sector, will mean the UK will be compliant with NO2 limits by 2020, and in London by 2025.
To have your say and find out more about DEFRA’s plans, click here. The consultation closes on November 6, 2015 (November 9 in Scotland).