Action on air pollution should come today, not tomorrow

The government's latest announcement on petrol and diesel is laughably unambitious

Remember VHS? It was the future, once (just ask Betamax). Then came the year 1995 and the birth of the DVD, and that was curtains for poor old videotape.

Since then, DVDs – and even their upstart siblings, Blurays – have themselves come and started to be gone thanks to downloading and, latterly, streaming. The smartphone and tablet, upon which much media is now consumed, didn’t even exist 11 years ago.

So it’s a bit hard to get excited about the Government’s announcement this week that all new petrol and diesel cars will be banned by the year 2040. That’s almost exactly as far in the future as the invention of the DVD is in the past. While a welcome statement of intent on the end of the fossil fuel age, it’s also laughably unambitious. Volvo says all of its cars will be electric or part-electric by 2019; that’s like Philips announcing in 1995 that it wouldn’t sell VHS recorders by 1997. Now that would have made people sit up and take notice.

Obviously, cars aren’t videos. They’re more expensive. More culturally imbued. They directly provide jobs for very many people, and that’s important. There’s a monumental physical infrastructure behind keeping them full of petrol, and of course a great deal of power in the hands of the fossil fuel companies that are very keen we continue to do so. The loans we take out to buy our cars prop up – increasingly unsteadily – many columns of the global finance industry. There’s more to unpick than there was with VHS. But yet, there are far greater imperatives to do so – climate change and air pollution chief among them.

And there’s a ferocious amount of new thinking going on. Never mind a ban in 2040. There’s a decent chance that the combustion engine will be dead long before then. The collision of three mega-disruptions – electrification; automation; and the on-demand’ connectivity already harnessed (for good or ill) by companies like Uber – looks set to radically change how cars work, and how we even conceive of our relationship with them. Exactly how, who knows, but even a toe-dunk into the range of possibilities is fascinating. As technology analyst Ben Evans argues in a compelling piece, One should presume autonomous vehicles change cities as much as cars did. That’s just a starting point for thinking about this.”

A new type of transport system isn’t necessarily all sunshine and unicorns. Huge questions of transparency and accountability are opened up. Who owns the data that powers its autonomous fleets? Who is on the hook for the algorithms that decide whether to swerve into the fast lane or the pavement if a crash is coming? Who makes sure it’s run in the public interest, not to funnel funds towards colossal tech companies with unparalleled power? How will it be specifically steered to reduce transport poverty? And will it make active travel like walking and cycling easier, safer, and at the heart of the regeneration of city centres around people, not the car?

Many of these aren’t questions for tomorrow, but today. The whole point of the Government’s ban is ostensibly to tackle the UK’s killer air pollution crisis; 40,000 premature deaths are linked to air pollution in the UK each year, thanks to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that are well over EU limits. The half-baked set of proposals in the rest of the plan mostly pass the buck to councils to sort the problem out while running scared of one of the things – congestion charging – that would have the most immediate chance of success.

The Government says that diesel drivers must not be unfairly” treated in attempts to clamp down on air pollution. Do we need to redefine fair”? As we argued last month, ministers have rather more determination not to put up taxes on pollution than they have to stop us all suffering from the consequences. There are hints in the new air quality plan that the Chancellor may indeed finally increase tax on diesels in the autumn Budget – let’s wait and see.

But without proper interim steps to flat out ban diesels from city centres, like those being taken by Paris and other European cities, a ban 23 years from now is like telling a bullied schoolboy that the bully will be punished by the time he’s 35.

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100