Plugging into the future: can electric vehicles clear the air?

“Electric Car2Go”by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.

Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.

Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.

Driving out diesel

There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.

Electric currents

As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.

Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.

In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.

Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.

Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.

Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.

Green for go?

Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.

In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and  set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.

But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.

Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.


If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…

Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality: