Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


Idox Transport solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network, all using UTMC, RTIG, SIRI and other recognised industry protocols. Idox Transport was also funded through the UK Government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial to explore the use of real-time data tools to change driver behaviour, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.


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Guest post: The 2035 petrol, diesel and hybrid ban – what it means and how we get there

The government has announced they will ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035, bringing forward the original date by five years. In this guest blog, Ian Johnston, CEO of EV charging network, Engenie, discusses the challenges and opportunities that this target will bring.

Since 2017, when a ban on petrol and diesel cars was first introduced by the UK government, there has been growing calls for the policy to have more ambition. Those calls were answered when the government brought forward its ban.

On Tuesday February 4 the government, having resisted calls for more stringent anti-ICE (internal combustion engine) polices for three years, brought its ban forward from 2040 to 2035.

The move was announced almost a year after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) formally advised that the ban be brought forward to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and just weeks after an election dominated by an environmental policy arms race between rival parties competing for the ever-growing climate-conscious vote. This meant that the change of date, as radical as it was, wasn’t wholly unexpected. The real surprise? Hybrids.

The decision to include hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in the ban came as quite a shock to many in the industry, not least for those who had, as recently as late 2018, been offered generous subsidies for these alternatives to dedicated ICE vehicles.

However, considering a series of studies reported that PHEVs could actually be emitting more CO2 than equivalent petrol-only cars due to extra battery weight, it seems to be a policy that has considered the real impact of hybrids and the scale of change needed for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hybrids have played an important role by getting drivers used to electric motoring but with pure electric vehicles (EVs) approaching cost parity and achieving longer range, they are no longer needed as much as they once were.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the CCC, also pointed out that cars are typically on UK roads for 14 years, meaning a ban – inclusive of these polluting hybrids – must happen by 2035 in order to get them off the road in time for Net Zero by 2050.

2035 – what does it mean and how do we get there?

Despite being welcomed by environmentalists and authoritative organisations such as the CCC, a number of motoring groups and manufacturers have described the move as ‘a date without a policy’.

So, we have a date to focus our minds but what do we need to do to get there? Perhaps the most prominent criticism levelled at the new policy is that public charging infrastructure is not yet ready to cope with mass electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

However, this is far from the truth. The private sector has done a great job of developing a huge number of public-access EV chargers in populated areas. In fact, as of last year, there are more public-access EV charging points than petrol stations.

The industry is also rising to the challenge of creating a truly open-access network to give drivers the best possible experience. Regulation, due to come into force this spring, is primed to enshrine this interoperability between charging networks in law.

Yet an issue remains. While the more commercially viable areas of the country which benefit from higher customer demand – shopping centres, retail parks, supermarkets, car parks etc. – have been well served by the private sector, other, more rural, areas of the country with less customer demand naturally deliver less return on investment and are therefore less likely to attract private investment.

The result is under-developed infrastructure in these areas. This is where the government can give real substance to its new target. By offering direct support to these areas, in particular, we can ensure that the rollout of chargers is a strategically managed programme, aimed at enabling mass EV adoption in all areas of the UK.

The idea that there are virtually no public charging points to cater for EV owners is just one misconception that plagues the country’s efforts to develop an established EV market. That’s why a sustained effort to educate the general public on EVs is needed.

If the government is committed to achieving its 2035 target, it must take responsibility for dispelling myths – i.e. lack of charging points, misconceptions about charging behaviour, range anxiety etc. – and educating on benefits i.e. the ease of home charging, lower fuels costs, zero emissions, minimal maintenance and superior driving experience.

Supply and demand

Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly for early adopters of EVs, there is the issue of EV supply. There’s no doubt that demand for EVs is skyrocketing. In fact, the market for EVs is set to expand from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020. Despite this, drivers are often discouraged by long waiting times for new vehicles – something that’s severely inhibiting the growth of this burgeoning market.

To tackle this issue, and thus help meet the 2035 target, the UK must cultivate an attractive trading environment for EV suppliers. One effective way to do this is to encourage OEM investment in UK-based supply chains – namely battery Gigafactories.

This will keep costs down for OEMs by shortening supply chains for the UK market and make a compelling case for them to prioritise UK EV deliveries over other countries.

The 2035 target is no mean feat and we have certainly planted an ambitious stake in the ground. The industry has already done much of the hard work but only by continuing to implement meaningful actions and gaining government support in key areas can we give the new target real substance and credibility.


Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.

Further reading: more blog posts on electric vehicles

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:

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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