The UK automotive industry is facing an unprecedented range of environmental challenges – and arguably opportunities. The "dieselgate" defeat devices scandal and resulting litigation, the 2040 electric vehicle switchover and NGO Client Earth's successful legal challenges of UK government air quality failings have placed the health and environmental impacts of vehicle emissions squarely on both the political and public agenda. In this edition of our newsletter, we focus on recent air quality policy developments of interest to those working in the UK automotive industry.

In July 2017, prompted by Client Earth's second successful court case against ministers to clean up illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution in the UK, the government Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Transport (DfT) published the "UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations". This is the UK's air quality plan to bring NO2 air pollution within statutory limits, as required by the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 in England and equivalent regulations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The solution it proposes is employing targeted actions first to reduce NOx emissions from the current road vehicle fleet in problem locations and second to accelerate road vehicle fleet turnover to cleaner vehicles to ensure that the problem remains addressed and does not move to other locations. Actions set out in the plan include:

  • requiring local authorities to implement measures to achieve statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time;
  • consultation on clean air zone framework proposals for Wales; and
  • consultation on proposals for the establishment and operation of Scotland's first low emission zone and the development of Scotland's national low emission framework.

For England, the plan suggests that the local authority led action plans could include changing road layouts, encouraging public and private uptake of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs), using innovative retrofitting technologies and new fuels, and encouraging public transport use. Local authorities may also implement clean air zones to address local air quality issues, including those where vehicle owners are required to pay charges to enter or move within a zone if their vehicle does not meet particular standards. We could also see the implementation of scrappage schemes and changes to the tax treatment of diesel vehicles.

Until these plans are further developed, it is difficult to predict the exact impact on UK consumer choices and diesel vs petrol (vs hybrid vs electric) car use and sales, however an impact must be expected.

2040 ban

The UK plan announced that the government will end the sale of all new "conventional" petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, however hybrid models can still be sold after that date. France has similarly committed to banning new petrol and diesel car sales by 2040.

Vehicle manufacturers

At the moment, vehicles being manufactured must meet EU-wide emission standards for a range of air pollutants (the "Euro emission standards"). Manufacturers can also help consumers understand how clean their vehicles are in terms of NOx emissions in the same way as they are required to do for carbon dioxide emissions via fuel consumption labelling sale/lease display requirements.

From September 2017, light passenger and commercial vehicles will be required to ensure that real world NOx emissions for new models are increasingly aligned with lab-testing limits, under new Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test requirements.

The UK air quality plan provides further detail on these and other national actions which manufacturers will need to take note of, and government stresses that it wants "vehicle manufacturers to show that they can be part of the solution as well as the problem".

The government is also developing further measures to address air quality issues, which will be set out in:

  • the Clean Growth Plan (which the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) will bring forward this autumn);
  • a "further strategy on the pathway to zero emission transport for all road vehicles" (to be published by March 2018); and
  • a wider Clean Air Strategy (in 2018) setting out how it will meet international commitments and reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants by 2020 and 2030.

Does the plan go far enough?

Client Earth has already expressed its disappointment with the plan. It has written to the UK government asking for urgent clarification on a number of aspects of the plan including on the guidance given to local authorities to evaluate the best ways of bringing air pollution down as soon as possible and how ministers will ensure that air quality limits are met across England.

Client Earth is seeking clarity on how Defra will assess plans from the 23 local authorities and how quickly this will be done. It is also waiting for clarification from the Scottish and Welsh governments on their and Defra's plans to remedy illegal air pollution levels in these devolved nations. Any such clarifications could prompt updates to the UK air quality plan.

Many commentators expect to see consumers and manufacturers leading the way in the electric vehicle revolution, before legislative changes and implementation of the 2040 ban force a switchover.

Charging infrastructure is anticipated to become more widespread as technology improves, electric vehicle ranges increase and car showroom prices fall. Car makers are already rushing to pledge that their new models will be all electric (or at least hybrid) in the short term future, and other influencers are shifting to electric powered futures. For example, Volvo plans to launch only hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fully electric cars from 2019 and Uber recently revealed its plan for all its cars in London to be electric or hybrid by 2025. Carbon Tracker predict the rise of electric cars will stem oil demand growth by 2020 and ING has predicted that all new cars sold in Europe will be battery powered by 2035.

It is certainly a fast-changing landscape, and one which anyone in the auto industry will want to keep a close eye on.