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DfT needs stronger commitment to air quality, MPs argue

The Department for Transport (DfT) needs a clear strategy to help the UK meet air quality targets, a report by the Environmental Audit Committee has claimed.

congestion pullution london ULEV

The EAC has claimed the government will miss its target for ultra-low emission vehicles

According to the Committee, which is made up of 16 MPs, the Department needs to assess the impact of its transport projects on sustainability in order to increase the use of ultra-low emission vehicles, reduce air pollution and deal with the Volkswagen cheat device scandal.

The report, titled ‘Sustainability in the Department for Transport,’ has called on the government to “spell out more clearly and in more detail its commitments, timetable and progress on sustainable transport.”

ULEVs

The Audit Committee finds that the government’s projections show it will miss the target for ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) to make up 9% of all new car and van sales by 2020, which the Committee on Climate Change says is necessary to meet the UK’s climate change targets in the most cost-effective way.

And the Committee has voiced concern that the DfT has no medium-term strategy to promote these vehicles after 2020. Commenting on the potential failure to meet the 9% target, Mary Creagh, chair of the Committee, said: “This failure risks making it more expensive to meet our long term carbon reduction targets.

“The Department should also aim for almost two thirds of new cars and vans to be ultra-low emission vehicles by 2030. With no strategy, we have no confidence that the DfT will meet this target.”

Air quality

The report found that in 2013, only five out of 43 clean air zones in the UK met EU standards on levels of NOx— a pollutant which causes respiratory diseases.

Following court action in 2015, DfT produced a joint air quality plan with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has been met with strong criticism and a fresh legal challenge (see AirQualityNews.com story).

Ms Creagh said: “The Government’s belated plan to tackle air quality means polluted towns and cities will hit 2010 air quality targets 10 years late, in 2020.

“Transport authorities throughout England told us they have had problems with getting sustainable transport projects off the ground, because the DfT places more importance on economic benefits rather than the health benefits of improving air quality.

“With the vote to leave the EU, there’s a material risk to our air quality targets. At the very least, the government should commit to keeping existing European air quality standards.

“We also want the Department to work with the Treasury, Health and Local Government Departments to ensure the benefits of clean air are properly costed in transport investment decisions.”

‘Inertia’

The EAC found that VW is only just beginning to recall cars in the UK. It also heard that the Serious Fraud Office and Competition and Markets Authority have still to determine whether they will take legal action against the company.

The Secretary of State for Transport has yet to decide whether there are grounds for legal action— almost a year after the scandal first broke, the report claims.

Ms Creagh said: “There’s been a worrying inertia from ministers in tackling the VW scandal, and they should decide whether to take legal action. They should ask the Vehicle Certification Agency to carry out tests to see whether, without the cheat devices, VW Group cars in the UK would have failed emissions tests.”

The EAC is also calling for clearer decarbonisation targets from Network Rail and train operating companies, showing how those targets have been chosen, and how performance against them will be measured.

Action

The EAC report calls for the Department to do more to assess the overall environmental impact of its transport projects. According to the Committee, DfT assesses individual project’s likely effect on the environment, but not the combined effect of all its projects and whether these assessments add up overall to unacceptable environmental harm.

The report concludes that DfT has “an opportunity to act as an intermediary where transport issues intersect with the responsibilities of other departments.”

It says: “Air quality is an important example, where the transport sector contributes significantly to air pollution but Defra is the policy lead and other Departments, such as Health, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury have their own stake in the issue.”

But, the EAC adds, “such cross-cutting, cross-departmental activity should be standard when addressing complex, long-term issues.”

Department for Transport

Commenting on the report, a DfT spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving air quality and reducing vehicle emissions. We want almost all cars and vans to be zero emission by 2050 and are investing more than £600 million in this Parliament to support the manufacture, use and uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles.

“In addition, the government is creating Clean Air Zones in five city centres, electrifying the rail network which cuts emissions and supporting the development of sustainable biofuels.

“We welcome the Environmental Audit Committee’s report and will consider the recommendations and respond in due course.”

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