Air pollution and vehicle technology

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 21st March 2017.

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‘The Secretary of State must, within 12 months, lay a report before Parliament setting out a strategy for using vehicle technologies, including electric vehicles, to contribute to meeting Government ambitions relating to air pollution and the UK’s climate change obligations.’—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to bring forward a strategy for using vehicle technology to address the issue of air pollution in the UK.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am asking for another strategy—I am absolutely on a roll—and it is on the very issue that we began to talk about in relation to the previous new clause. This one goes by a name that is very popular among Opposition Members in that it is new clause 4. It is, however, on a matter that is really serious. Air pollution and air quality have often been perceived as matters for the future, but they are matters for the here and now. While this Bill indirectly addresses the issue of air quality, I would like to press the Minister to be a little more explicit on how it can contribute to tackling the air quality challenge.

I cannot help but feel that the Government have missed an opportunity in this Bill to be more proactive and perhaps a bit more innovative in confronting one of the biggest issues facing our country. Air quality is nothing short of a crisis, and air pollution is choking our towns and cities. It is a widely recognised public health issue; it contributes to approximately 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. We also know that it is affecting people’s daily lives, particularly the lives of those with lung conditions and other respiratory conditions, and we know that unless we take action things will not get better on their own. Brixton Road in south London breached annual air pollution limits for 2017 just five days into the new year.

The Minister will not need reminding that the Government are under pressure to produce—at the third attempt—a revamped air quality plan next month, after a High Court judge described their previous two plans as wholly inadequate. The Minister has talked about the meetings he has already had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to produce that plan, but at the moment it appears that we are dangerously on course to fail to meet not only the standard that has been set for us on air quality but our own renewable fuels target.

I am not being unreasonable about the difficulties and challenges that exist in confronting these kinds of issues; I am simply stating the facts. Currently, we are failing to meet the air quality challenge that faces us. Clean air should not be a privilege; it is a right. Reducing harmful emissions must be a priority for public health, the environment and for future generations, and the Government have a central role to play in rising to that challenge.

The scale of this issue is great and dealing with it will require ambitious, innovative thinking. Decarbonisation of vehicles is widely seen as a critical component in helping the UK to meet its own obligations and targets. That is why the electrification of transport is vital, in any equation, for achieving the 2050 targets. Electric vehicles themselves, whether they are “conventionally” electrically powered or powered through hydrogen, are obviously an important part of that process.

However, it is not only decarbonisation of vehicles that matters but decarbonisation more generally—of industry, the economy and society. That means not just patting ourselves on the back because we are encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles. If that is not backed up by further change, the switch to electric vehicles could end up shifting emissions elsewhere to power plants, rather than getting rid of the emissions.

This process is not just about cars. Most of our discussions in this Committee, including in our evidence sessions, have focused on private cars, but equal if not more attention needs to be paid to commercial vehicles—HGVs, vans and buses. There are also great opportunities with buses and taxis; we should ensure that public procurement is geared towards stimulating the uptake of zero-emission vehicles.

The transition towards a low-carbon, low-emission and sustainable future is a journey in itself, but the Government can do a lot more on that journey. That is why this new clause would require the Government to place the Bill within a broader strategy for using electric vehicles and other ultra low emission vehicles, in order to address the crisis we face.

The Minister knows, from what we have said so far, that we welcome the Government’s action on this Bill and the spirit with which that action has been taken. However, he also knows that the Bill must be about more than that. He says he has talked to his colleagues in other Government Departments about the air quality plan, and we hope within the next month to see an ambitious plan for confronting the air quality crisis. For now, without giving too much away about what that plan will involve, will the Minister at least give us an indication of what further action the Government will be taking to tackle the air quality crisis and how they will seek to use the emerging markets for electric vehicles and for ultra low emission vehicles more generally as part of that strategy?

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport)

We support the new clause. A lot more needs to be done to encourage the uptake of electric and low-emission vehicles. So far, the contribution that has been made by alternative vehicles to reductions in carbon and CO2 emissions is inadequate; 1.2% of vehicles are ULEVs at the moment. Any kind of increase in that has to be more substantial than we have seen over recent years. It is essential that there is a proper update and that the Government are required to bring forward a strategy to ensure that these vehicles make a serious contribution to improving air quality.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

New clause 4 deals with vehicle technologies—not only electric vehicles. What part does the Minister believe liquefied petroleum gas can play in the Government’s plans to improve air quality?

While I do not think anyone sees it as a longer-term solution, an LPG-converted taxi—as I am sure the Minister is aware—produces 99% fewer particulates, 80% less nitrogen oxide and 70% less carbon, and an LPG-converted van produces 99% fewer particulates, 12% less carbon and only 5% of Euro 6 nitrogen oxide emissions.

There are two actions that the Government could take to expand the use of LPG as an interim measure to deal with air quality issues. The first is on the fuel duty escalator, and the second is to have conversations with some of the major vehicle manufacturers and van manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors, which already produce right-hand drive LPG vehicles for overseas markets but do not produce a left-hand drive version for the UK. The Minister may not have been briefed on that area by his officials so far. If he wanted to write to the Committee to explain the Government’s thoughts on how LPG might help in this area, I would be amenable to receiving a letter rather than a response from him now.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire on looking at the alternative fuels framework altogether, which is now 14 years old, in particular the escalator and the possible benefits of using LPG as a transition to decarbonising transport.

I know that some Government Members are against another strategy or another possible aspect to regulation, but there is merit in this. We need joined-up thinking from the Government on air quality and energy policy in general. The new clause ties that together, which I support. We need to look at the odds of unintended consequences, which strategic thinking helps with. Otherwise, as we have heard, we could have a switch to electric vehicles that causes an increase in electricity demand, which then causes dirty energy to be created, meaning there is no net benefit.

We need a strategy and joined-up thinking across the various Government Departments. That ties in with the fact that the Government have passed the fifth carbon budget. If we are going to achieve that and hit the 2050 emission targets, we need a coherent, joined-up strategy. I will leave my comments there, in support of the measure.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Adjourned till Thursday 23 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

VTAB 09 RAC Motoring Services

VTAB 10 UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association

VTAB 11 Autogas Ltd.