Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:14 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Labour, Nottingham South 1:14 pm, 4th July 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Kyle on opening the debate and Mark Pawsey on his speech.

Our 2018 Joint Select Committee report on air quality began by setting out the impacts of air pollution, and they bear repeating. Some 40,000 lives across the country are cut short every year, with an annual cost to the UK of £20 billion. The health of babies, children, older people and those with existing medical conditions, including lung problems and asthma is put at great risk. We noted in that report that successive Governments had failed to act and violated our obligations to ensure safe, clean air to breathe. Of course, air pollution is just one of the environmental challenges that we face. I welcome the recognition in this place that we face a climate emergency, but it demands urgent and radical action to end our contribution to global carbon emissions. It is therefore particularly timely for us to debate the Government’s plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

Road transport is responsible for 80% of NOx emissions—air pollution—at the roadside, and 65% of the emissions come from diesel and petrol cars and vans. While there has been a significant reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions, that is primarily as a result of changes in energy generation. Progress on emissions from transport has been stuck in the slow lane. Not only have transport emissions not fallen in recent years but they rose between 2013 and 2017, and the sector is now the UK’s largest generator of greenhouse gases, making up 27% of the total. Even though individual cars are becoming more fuel efficient and reducing their individual emissions, that is far surpassed by the increase in the number of vehicles on our roads, which is getting higher and higher.

The case for action is clear. The Government’s plans, however, are sadly lacking. The joint report welcomed the commitment to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, but the target date of 2040 is not ambitious enough. It is too distant to produce the step change that is needed in industry and local government planning and, as my hon. Friend has said, it lags behind the commitment made by other countries and car manufacturers. Norway has committed to selling only zero-emission vehicles by 2025 and a host of other countries have set the target of 2030. Even Scotland is on 2032.

The target is about banning the sale of vehicles. We know that the replacement of the whole vehicle fleet would take 10 to 15 years. If we aim for the end of the sale of vehicles only in 2040, we will have no hope of meeting zero carbon by 2050. Are we really prepared to wait 15 years after the end of the sale of vehicles to eliminate those vehicles that emit polluting carbon from our roads? I do not think that we are.

If we are to change the set-up, industry needs clarity on what will be required and when. There is undoubtedly an opportunity to move more quickly, as the Committee on Climate Change has recommended. The National Infrastructure Commission has called for a similar ban on the sale of new diesel HGVs by 2040. It is a real challenge to decarbonise our freight sector, but we should go faster and further where we can and we need more research on how we can do that.

Setting a more ambitious target of 2030, 2035 or even sooner is not enough in itself. The Government must also take steps to ensure that that target is met and that they have the policies to support businesses and people in the switch to cleaner vehicles. We know that many consumers are confused—the RAC’s motoring survey has confirmed that—so clear guidance is needed. There are simple options such as vehicle labelling, which is very welcome and should be extended to, for instance, the second-hand market.

As has already been said, we need a rapid roll-out of charging infrastructure. The Government should work with National Grid in relation to electricity demand, and liaise with local authorities to identify the barriers and take steps to overcome them. Of course, the Government are themselves a major fleet provider, and are able to ensure that their fleets consist of cleaner and greener vehicles. However, as we start demanding that people use electric vehicles and do so rather more quickly, we should be conscious of social justice, especially when we know that clean air charging zones are being introduced in some of our most polluted towns and cities. The Government must act to help those who are least able to afford to replace polluting vehicles with ultra low emission vehicles. They should consider the role of scrappage schemes, and target support at low-income households and small businesses.

I must sound a note of caution about the limitations of this debate. Electric cars and vans are not a panacea, and they are not the whole answer to air pollution or the climate crisis. First, even electric cars’ brakes and tyres produce dangerous particulates that have an impact on health, so simply changing to a cleaner vehicle is not the answer. Secondly, cars are not the only issue. I have to say that in our air quality report, we largely neglected to consider the rail network. While it is not a significant contributor at a national level, we know that emissions from diesel trains pose a serious problem in stations and depots. The Government have talked about decarbonising the railway, but they are also still talking about bi-mode trains, which, when they are not under the wires, are simply diesel trains.

The most important point, I think, is that air pollution and carbon emissions are not our only challenges. Inactivity and obesity are huge public health challenges, and congestion is a blight in nearly all towns and cities. We could move from dirty, polluting traffic jams to clean, green traffic jams, and that would not be right. We need more people to get out of their cars and on to public transport—this is Catch the Bus Week, and low emission buses have an enormous role to play—but we need even more people to be walking and cycling. Some 60% of journeys of one to two miles are undertaken by car, and that has to change if we are serious about securing a happy, healthy future for our country. Yes, we need cleaner vehicles, but we need so much more.