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Air Pollution in the UK – Seven years of illegal NO2 emissions

UK Government publishes its latest plans to tackle air pollution

But compliance with legal limits is still a distant prospect

August 21st 2017

The UK Government has published its latest plans to tackle air pollution, following a long-running legal battle over its failure to comply with EU standards for air quality. The plans were published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport on 26th July and focused on curbing roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations. In a press release, the Government announced that a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy will be published next year which will outline its plans to tackle other sources of air pollution. [1] The press release highlights the Government’s intention to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, whilst the current strategy on curbing NO2 levels places the onus on local authorities to produce action plans.

Client Earth v. UK Government: A seven-year legal battle

The UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations is the latest development in a seven-year legal battle between the UK Government and the environment law firm Client Earth, which began in 2010 as a collaborative venture with the campaign group Clean Air in London. [2] In an initial response to the latest plan, Client Earth has described it as lacking in urgency and apparently “little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans.” [3] Anna Heslop, one of the firm’s air quality lawyers, said: “Successive governments have failed to protect us from illegal air quality. We’ve had to return repeatedly to court to challenge the Government on its weak and incoherent air quality policies and yet, seven years on, we are still having to fight to protect people’s health.” [4]

Should the lawyers take further court action, it will be the eighth time that Client Earth has taken the UK Government to court over its plans to curb NO2 emissions. In summary, the legal saga is as follows:

• 2011: High Court
• 2012: Court of Appeal
• 2013: UK Supreme Court
• 2014: European Court of Justice
• 2015: UK Supreme Court
• 2016: High Court
• 2017: High Court

What follows is the background to the latest plans. This legal saga can best be summarised as a history of missed deadlines, deliberate procrastination, and persistence on the part of the UK Government in its refusal to comply with EU law. Its air quality plans have repeatedly been deemed unlawful by the courts, and the Treasury has been consistent in having the final say, placing economic and political considerations above public health.

January 2010: UK misses deadline for legal limits of NO2 emissions

The legal battle began in 2010 as a response to the UK’s failure to meet the requirements of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive which came into force in 2008. The 2008/50/EU Directive forms part of a body of legislation which sets out health-based standards and targets for a number of pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, benzene, and fine particles known as particulate matter. Under EU law “a limit value is legally binding from the date it enters into force subject to any exceedances permitted by the legislation.” [5] The limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which came into force on January 1st 2010, is 40µg/m3 (40 micrograms per cubic metre), taken as the average measure over a twelve-month period. A recent report on the implementation of the Directive says that NO2 levels at the most polluted traffic site in London (Marylebone Road) were well above 100μg/m3 in the period 2003 to 2009. [6] In 2013, NO2 annual mean concentrations of 85μg/m3 were recorded. In short, the levels have been well over the legal limit of 40µg/m3, which should have been met by the start of 2010.

The impact of diesel

A recent study by the Royal College of Physicians says that every year in the UK “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution” [7] Air pollutant emissions from road traffic are generally held to be the main source of the problem, with diesel vehicles in particular being the main source of NO2 emissions. The irony here is that in 2001 the Labour Government adopted measures to boost the sale of diesel vehicles on the grounds that this would cut carbon emissions and help to reduce the effects of climate change. Martin Goodman reports that the Government published guidance on NO2 levels in 2004, in which it claimed “the UK Air Quality Strategy aims to achieve its objectives earlier than the EU has set.” However, this optimism was based on old data which showed a 37% fall in NO2 emissions in the decade up to 2000, with the expectation of a further 25% fall by 2010. The calculations did not foresee the impact of the increased use of diesel. [8]

2011–2012: High Court judges say enforcement of legal requirement is a matter for the European Commission

The legal case first appeared before the High Court in 2011, with Client Earth launching a judicial review of the failure by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to comply with the legal limits for NO2 emissions as set out in the Directive. The judge presiding over the case found that the Government was indeed in breach of a legal requirement, but declined to rule on any remedy, saying that enforcement was a matter for the European Commission. In May 2012, Client Earth appealed to the Court of Appeal, but the Court upheld the decision of the High Court judge. [9]

2013: UK Supreme Court seeks advice from European Court of Justice

In 2013, however, Client Earth submitted an appeal to the newly formed Supreme Court, and the court found in Client Earth’s favour. The Court ruled that the UK Government was in breach of a legal duty to comply with NO2 limits in 16 cities and regions, including Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as London. As for what action should be taken, the Court then sought advice from the European Court of Justice regarding the provisions of the Air Quality Directive and the role of national courts in providing appropriate remedies.

2014: European Court of Justice considers “the longest-running infringement of EU law in history”

The European Court of Justice considered a body of evidence in compiling its advice, including the available data on NO2 levels. Martin Goodman says scientists from King’s College London set up a monitoring station in Oxford Street which recorded an average level of 135μg/m3 in 2014, whilst a daytime reading peaked at 463μg/m3. As for the Government’s response: “Lawyers from the European Commission told the European judges that they were considering perhaps the longest-running infringement of EU law in history.” [10]

UK Government hopes to reach compliance by 2025… or 2030…

The provisions of the Air Quality Directive say that member states can apply for an extension of up to five years to meet limiting values in a specific zone, subject to an assessment by the Commission. [11] However, the Government had already missed its 2010 deadline and said to the EU that it was unable to meet the next deadline of January 1st 2015. It was hoping to reach compliance by 2025, but then admitted that the target for NO2 levels in London, Leeds and Birmingham would not be met until 2030. [12] The European Court of Justice delivered its ruling in November 2014. The judgement said that the UK was legally obliged to mitigate air pollution and was “wholly adrift of all procedures to fit such compliance to the given deadlines. Furthermore, it must produce a plan to keep the period in which NO2 pollution was breaking legal limits ‘as short as possible.'”

April 2015: UK Supreme Court orders Government to take urgent action on air pollution

The decision was sent back to the UK Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict in April 2015: “The Supreme Court unanimously orders that the Government must submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31st December 2015.” [13] The Supreme Court also demanded urgent action on the part of the Government with regard to NO2 levels, without setting a deadline for compliance. However, the parties were granted permission to return to the High Court for clarification of the order, with particular regard to the terms ‘urgent’ and ‘as soon as possible’ and how they were to be understood. A press release from Client Earth said: “The Supreme Court ruling means the Government must start work on a comprehensive plan to meet pollution limits as soon as possible. Among the measures that that it must consider are low emission zones, congestion charging, and other economic incentives. Client Earth is calling for action to clean up the worst polluting diesel vehicles, including through a national network of low emission zones.” [14]

December 2015: the UK Government continues to defy EU law on NO2 limits

Defra published a draft plan in September 2015. In response, Client Earth released a series of press statements which criticised the Government for a lack of joined-up thinking, saying that the Department for Transport and DECC (the now defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change) had failed to make any assessment of the impact on air quality when making major policy decisions, whilst Defra’s draft plans, published as a consultation document, did not meet the demand for immediate action:

“The Supreme Court ordered Liz Truss to come up with a plan to achieve legal levels of air quality as soon as possible. Instead, even under the Government’s own projections, many cities in the UK will still have illegal levels of diesel fumes until 2020 and beyond. In London the problem is even worse – Defra projections say the legal levels of air pollution will not be reached until 2025. The plans contain only one new national measure: ‘clean air zones’ which would restrict older vehicles entering the most polluted city centres – but leaving it up to overstretched and underfunded local authorities to implement them. We therefore don’t have any idea if or when these clean air zones will ever materialise.” [15]

Treasury reduces Defra’s plans for Clean Air Zones

Following the consultation period, the Government’s plans were finally published on 17th December 2015. The plans repeated much of what was said in the draft. So the Government had responded to the Supreme Court ruling by producing an air quality plan by the end of the year deadline, but the plan was to reach compliance with the EU’s limit values for NO2 by 2025. Client Earth said this amounted to a total defiance of the Air Quality Directive, the European Court of Justice, and the UK Supreme Court. According to Martin Goodman, government ministers had been advised by Defra’s head of air quality to implement clean air zones, which would bring forward compliance with EU NO2 limits “by directly removing the dirtiest vehicles from hotspot areas and by encouraging people to swap polluting vehicles for less polluting ones.” [16] However, the Treasury reduced Defra’s plans for 16 clean air zones outside of London to 5 (Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton), and also blocked an increase in charges for driving in city centres. [17] Client Earth responded to the plan’s publication with an announcement that the Government would face further legal action. The firm’s principal air quality lawyer, Alan Andrews, said: “The Government seems to think that the health of people in cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol is less important than that of people in London. While London gets a clean air zone covering all vehicles, Birmingham gets a second class zone and Derby and Southampton third class, while other areas including Manchester and Liverpool are left out. We all have the same right to breathe clean air.” [18] The new legal challenge was launched in March 2016 when Client Earth lodged papers at the High Court, seeking a judicial review of the Government’s plans. [19]

April 2016: MPs declare UK air pollution to be a “public health emergency”

In April 2016, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, which oversees the work of Defra, published a report on the state of air pollution in the UK and the Government’s attempts to tackle it, declaring that the situation amounted to a “public health emergency.” [20] The cross-party group of MPs called on the Government to introduce a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles which would target those older than ten years of age and offer drivers financial incentives to trade them in. The Efra report also says that UK ministers should argue robustly with the EU to set lower limits for nitrogen oxide emissions from new vehicles, as the EU’s ‘real world’ tests, to be implemented from 1st September 2017, would set initial emission limits that are twice as high as previous laboratory test levels and set limits into the 2020s which are 50% higher. [21] The report also reiterates Client Earth’s criticism of the lack of joined-up thinking from government departments: “Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions.” The report says that the inter-ministerial ‘Clean Growth Group’, which is meant to be co-ordinating efforts to tackle air pollution, is seen as secretive and “does not publish information on its meetings, outcomes or action plans.”

May 2016: London Mayor Sadiq Khan joins Client Earth’s legal challenge

In May 2016, newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to submit statements and evidence in Client Earth’s forthcoming legal case at the High Court. Speaking to the Guardian’s environment correspondent Damian Carrington, he said: “The government’s current air quality plan with respect to London is based on the very limited ambition of the previous mayor to tackle air pollution and isn’t enough to protect Londoners’ health.” [22] Earlier that month, the Guardian had revealed that Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan’s predecessor, had commissioned a report on air pollution in London but the report had remained unpublished since its completion in 2013. The report showed that 433 schools in London are in areas that exceed legal limits for NO2 pollution and that 80% of those schools are in deprived areas. [23] On taking up his post as mayor, Sadiq Khan set out new plans to tackle London’s air pollution problem, which included doubling the size of the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone,’ which Boris Johnson had planned to implement by 2020, and retrofitting 1,000 more buses with cleaner technology. Older, dirtier diesel vehicles will be charged £12.50 to enter the low emission zone. Sadiq Khan said to the Guardian: “It’s clear we need to speed up our efforts so I’m calling on government to match my new level of ambition for London and to work with me to improve our city’s dirty air and to make sure we get within legal limits much sooner – before the current target of 2025.” [24]

November 2016: Judicial Review finds Air Quality Plan is based knowingly on flawed data

Client Earth’s case was heard at the High Court in October 2016. In delivering the Court’s ruling, Mr Justice Garnham agreed with Client Earth that the Environment Secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible.” The judgement, published on 2nd November, said that the Government’s 2015 Air Quality Plan failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling or relevant EU Directives and found that the Government had erred in law by setting compliance dates based on an over-optimistic modelling of pollution levels, using lab tests which they knew to be flawed. Instead of identifying measures that would achieve compliance as soon as possible, “it identified measures which, if very optimistic forecasts happened to be proved right and emerging data happened to be wrong, might achieve compliance. To adopt a plan based on such assumptions was to breach both the Directive and the Regulations.” [25] The judge said it was remarkable that the Government had acknowledged that its plan was built around a forecast based on figures which emerging data was undermining and that “if higher, more realistic, assumptions for emissions are made, the number of zones which will not meet the limit value in 2020 increases substantially.” [26]

Evidence suggests the Government’s timetable is motivated by the prospect of EU fines

The judge also commented on ministerial correspondence which suggested “that a principal driving factor in selecting 2020 was not the obligation to remedy the problem as soon as possible but to remedy it in time to avoid EU infraction proceedings.” [27] The correspondence said: “In developing potential measures for the plans we have used projected exceedances in 2020 as the basis for defining the worst areas. This is based on our understanding that 2020 is likely to be the earliest the EU will move to fines.” The judge said that, while there can be no objection to a member state having regard to cost when choosing between two equally effective measures, or when deciding which organ of government should pay, he rejected “any suggestion that the state can have any regard to cost in fixing the date for compliance or in determining the route by which the compliance can be achieved where one route produces results quicker than another.” [28] He continued: “In those respects the determining consideration has to be the efficacy of the measure in question and not their cost. That, it seems to me, flows inevitably from the requirements in the Article to keep the exceedance period as short as possible.”

Back to the drawing board

The ruling was welcomed by Client Earth whose air quality lawyer Alan Andrews said in a press statement: “We need a national network of clean air zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK, not just in a handful of cities. The Government also needs to stop these inaccurate modelling forecasts. Future projections of compliance need to be based on what is really coming out of the exhausts of diesel cars when driving on the road, not just the results of discredited laboratory tests.” [29]

For the Government, it was a case of ‘back to the drawing board.’

UK Government is ordered to produce a draft plan by 24 April 2017…

The deadlines for the Government were delivered by Mr Justice Garnham at the High Court on 21st November. The judge, rejecting the Government’s suggested timetable of September 2017 to produce a final plan, ordered the Government to produce a draft plan by 24th April 2017 and a final one by 31st July 2017. The judge also requested that the Government publish the technical data on which it was basing its plans, and gave Client Earth permission to return to the High Court should there be any further problems with the draft plan. Responding to the ruling, Alan Andrews said that a total of 37 out of 43 zones in the UK had illegal levels of air pollution, and argued that a national network of clean air zones must be part of the Government’s plans, which meant far more than the six which were currently planned. [30]

But on 21 April 2017 the UK Government wants an extension

Following the PM's decision to call a general election on 8th June, the Government then made a last-minute attempt to delay publication of the draft plan, seeking 30th June and 15th September as the new deadlines. The application to the High Court was submitted late on Friday 21st April after the court had closed, and shortly before the original deadline of 4pm on Monday 24th April. Mr Justice Garnham ordered a hearing into the application for Thursday, 27th April. At the hearing, the Government claimed that "purdah rules" meant that they could not publish the plans until after the general election, but was forced to concede that the delay could have an impact on the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution "as soon as possible." Client Earth argued that air pollution was a matter of public health not politics. The judge agreed, but accepted that purdah rules would affect the local elections on 4th May. He ordered the Government to produce the plans by the new deadline of 9th May. The 31st July deadline remained in force. [31]

May 2017: Draft plans are “weak and incoherent”

The draft plans were finally published for consultation on 5th May, while the results of the local elections were still being counted. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton gave an immediate response, saying the plans were weak and incoherent, and that the UK would still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under the proposals: “We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones, proposed by the Government, will be effective if they don’t persuade motorists to stay out of those areas. The Government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency,” he said. He also noted that the Government had failed to make any commitments to a diesel scrappage scheme. [32]

A flawed consultation

The draft plans were accompanied by a public consultation which ran from 5th May to 15th June. But on 31st May Client Earth said that the consultation did not include measures which the government’s own technical data showed were the best way to bring down air pollution as soon as possible. In particular, the evidence showed that a network of clean air zones which charged the dirtiest diesel vehicles for entering the most polluted areas of the UK would be the most effective solution, but the draft plans did not set this out as a proposal. Client Earth’s lawyers had written to Defra seeking improvements to the draft, but Defra had refused to modify the consultation. James Thornton said the consultation was flawed and that Client Earth would be seeking a ruling from the High Court on this issue. “The government’s plans and consultation do not match what its own evidence says needs to happen,” he said. “If the evidence shows that taking certain measures will be necessary to tackle the public health crisis of polluted air, then the plans and associated consultation needs to make that clear.” [33]

July 2017: Back to the High Court

A hearing at the High Court was set for Wednesday 5th July. Mr Justice Garnham ruled that the draft plan in itself was not unlawful, but suggested that the final plan could well be open to legal challenge if it did not deal with some of the concerns presented by Client Earth. [34] The judge also stated that any alternative measures to meet air quality limits would have to be equally effective or more effective than a clean air zone that charged polluting vehicles for entering.

The final plan was published on 26th July.

A “highly localised” problem, says Government

We return now to this latest plan, the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations. In its press release, the Government’s use of statistics reduces the problem of air pollution to a relatively minor proportion of the country’s roads. It says that NO2 levels have decreased by 50% in the last 15 years, but 4% of Britain’s major roads (81 out of 1,800) are due to breach legal pollution limits for NO2, including 33 outside of London. Consequently, the Government’s press release describes NO2 pollution as a highly localised problem and places the burden on local authorities to sort this out: “Due to the highly localised nature of the problem, local knowledge will be crucial in solving pollution problems in these hotspots,” it says. [35]

Local authorities must take “robust action”

The Government says it will be providing towns and cities with £255m to implement local plans. Local authorities will be asked to produce initial plans within eight months and final plans by the end of 2018. Local councils “with the worst levels of air pollution at busy road junctions and hotspots must take robust action,” with the aim of delivering roadside NO2 compliance “in the fastest possible time.” In addition to the £255m implementation fund, the Government has also announced a new Clean Air Fund, the details of which will be announced later this year. The aim of the Clean Air Fund is “to support improvements which will reduce the need for restrictions on polluting vehicles.” Local authorities will be invited to bid for funds to carry out these improvements. The measures could include reducing congestion by changing road layouts or removing traffic lights and speed humps; upgrading bus fleets with new low emission buses or retrofitting older buses with cleaner engines; encouraging the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles; and introducing concessionary travel schemes and new park and ride services. A consultation is expected in the autumn to gather views on measures to support those affected by local plans, such as a targeted scrappage scheme for car and van drivers.

Charging polluting vehicles should be a last resort, says Government

The Government says local authorities should only consider restrictions on polluting vehicles if their action plans are insufficient to ensure legal compliance, and charging should only be considered as a last resort. In addition, “restrictions or charging on polluting vehicles should be time-limited and lifted as soon as air pollution is within legal limits and the risk of future breaches has passed.”

£2.7bn to improve air quality

The Government says it is committing £2.7bn in total to reducing vehicle emissions and improving air quality, including investments in the development and manufacture of ultra low emission vehicles, and a £100m Clean Bus Technology Fund grant scheme to fund new buses and retrofitting older buses, £40m of which was being made available immediately. A ring-fenced Air Quality Fund of £100m has been allocated to Highways England to help improve air quality on the national road network as part of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy. The fund will be available to 2021 and an article in the Independent reveals how Highways England may spend part of the money, following the publication of its air quality strategy. [36]

Highways England’s air quality strategy, published on 2nd August, says “emissions from diesel vehicles are a significant contributor to the poor air quality at the roadside” and contributes around 77% of the NO2 close to the motorway network. [37] The agency is investing in a three-year programme from 2015 to 2018 which will deliver around 50 continuous monitoring stations across the road network to provide real time air quality information. It is also exploring the possibility of using physical barriers to pollution by testing a a new polymer material with the potential to clean the air. If the tests are successful, it will consider using the material to build canopies which would cover stretches of its road network. The agency says it started trialling a physical air quality barrier in 2015 which covered a 100-metre stretch of the M62, “initially 4 metres high and raised to 6 metres in early 2016.” It then carried out a trial of a barrier incorporating an innovative polymer material with the potential to absorb NO2. The strategy document says: “We are using these trials to investigate if barriers can help contribute to improving air quality for our neighbours. The results from the monitoring of such trials will help us understand if this has been a success with the potential to implement barriers on our network. We are also investigating if we can reduce the costs to construct a canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions reaching our neighbours, to make this a viable solution.”

The agency has also set a target of putting a charging point for ultra low emission vehicles every 20 miles on 95% of the road network. However, according to the Independent, the Automobile Association has expressed concern over the pressure a nation of electric cars would place on the National Grid, with a warning “it would have to cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour,” whilst other estimates have suggested around 10 new power stations would need to be built to deal with the increased demand. [38]

The breakdown of the Government’s £2.7bn is detailed in its press release. [39]

Client Earth seeks urgent clarification on the Government’s plan

Reactions to the Government’s latest plans have been overwhelmingly critical. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton issued a quick response, describing them as little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans, as mentioned above. “This plan is, yet again, a plan for more plans,” he said. “The Government is passing the buck to local authorities to come up with their own schemes as an alternative to clean air zones which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter our towns and cities. Yet Defra’s own evidence shows that charging clean air zones would be the swiftest way to tackle illegal levels of pollution.” [40] He highlighted the lengthy timetable for local authorities to develop their plans, the lack of attention to devolved regions, and described the 2040 diesel and petrol ban as a diversion because it failed to deal with the immediate problem of NO2 levels.

Last week, Client Earth wrote to Defra seeking urgent clarification on the plans. In particular, the letter asks for clarity on the guidance given to local authorities concerning how they will evaluate the best ways of bringing air pollution down as soon as possible, “as well as how ministers will ensure that air quality limits are met across England.” [41] Client Earth is also seeking clarity on how Defra will assess plans from the 23 local authorities and how quickly this will be done.

What about the devolved regions?

The law firm has also written to the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, seeking clarification on their plans. Writing in theHolyrood Magazine, Liam Kirkaldy reports that there are currently 38 Pollution Zones in Scotland, which councils have said are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution. [42] The number has risen from 35 in 2015. Client Earth has warned that “unless ministers take tougher action then Aberdeen and Edinburgh will not meet legal limits until 2020, and Glasgow will not comply until 2024.” The Scottish Government has published a proposal to trial a first Low Emission Zone in one Scottish city, and Client Earth questions how this will help reduce dangerous levels elsewhere. In a letter to the Scottish Government, the lawyers have asked for “further information on how limit values will be met in the shortest time possible in all parts of Scotland.”

Plan criticised by local authorities

The Government’s plan has been criticised by local authorities, politicians, environmental campaigners, and health experts. According to the Guardian, the leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Leicester and Oxford city councils have written to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, calling for urgent legislation and a comprehensive scrappage scheme to encourage people to give up diesel vehicles. [43] The plan proposes a limited version of a scrappage scheme targeted at those who most need support, such as people on lower incomes or those living in the neighbourhood of a clean air zone. The letter says that the “updated clean air plan, while indicating long-term ambition, still lacks some specific actions that would enable us to meet the legal limits and establish safer air sooner rather than later.” The article by Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington says that Sheffield Council has called the report “woefully inadequate,” with Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport, reportedly saying he was “highly sceptical that the Government’s announcement even meets their legal duties on air quality.”

Ban on diesel is “highly symbolic”

BBC News reports that Liberal Democrat and former energy secretary Ed Davey described the lack of a scrappage scheme as a “shameful betrayal” of diesel car drivers and said it showed “the utter lack of ambition” in the plan, whilst London Mayor Sadiq Khan said people in London were suffering right now because of air pollution and can’t afford to wait. [44] Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, told the Guardian that here had already been “seven years of illegal air pollution under this Conservative government, who have only acted after being dragged through the courts.” [45] Speaking to Ian Johnston, environment correspondent for the Independent, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF-UK, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 might sound good but will end up being meaningless as drivers will be switching to electric vehicles in any case. “The Government’s been failing to comply with this law for seven years,” he said, “and then is setting itself a target so far in the future that it will be delivered even if the Government did nothing.” [46] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, made a similar comment, describing the ban as “highly symbolic”: “Given the rate of improvement in battery and electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years, by 2040 small combustion engines in private cars could well have disappeared without any Government intervention,” he said.

Doctors demand a “more robust response to this public health emergency”

According to the Guardian, senior doctors specialising in child health have also expressed their disappointment at the failure to take more decisive action. [47] Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was indisputable evidence demonstrating the tragic effects that air pollution has on the development of the lungs and hearts of children. “Having been told to go back to the drawing board so many times, that the Government’s final air quality plan still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable,” she said. Professor Jonathan Grigg, from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, also said more urgent action was needed: “The 2040 target means that several generations of children will suffer the long term consequences of inhaling sooty particles and oxides of nitrogen,” he said. “The Government needs to act now, with a faster and more robust response to this public health emergency.”

Other commentators have pointed to the lack of attention to other sources of air pollution. Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst, said the Government’s plan did not address pollution from construction, farming and gas boilers. [48] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, told the Independent: “There still remain many other urban sources of pollution not only from transport, but also heating, construction, domestic emissions, and external sources of pollution that drift into cities from outside, most notably from the agricultural sector. Some other urban sources of pollution are even on an upwards trend, most notably from wood burning stoves.” [49]

Plan criticised by transport unions

Unions representing the car manufacturing sector have expressed concern over the potential impact on employment when conventional vehicles are phased out. Speaking to the Guardian, Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, said: “The announcement has wide-ranging implications for the UK economy and future employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. We are calling for a national debate embracing employers, unions and ministers.” [50] And unions representing rail workers have also condemned the Government’s plan, pointing to the recent decision of the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to abandon plans to electrify parts of the rail network. Speaking to the Independent, Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles “exposes the rank hypocrisy of their decision to shelve long-planned rail electrification works. Puffed up news announcements about plans that are a generation away will not mask the reality of scrapped modernisation programmes on our railways in the here and now,” he said. [51]

Environment Secretary responds: “It’s up to local councils to do the hard work,” he says

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded to some of these criticisms on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. [52] On charging motorists to enter clean air zones, he said the idea had been rejected and that it was up to local authorities to come up with imaginative solutions. “I don’t believe that it is necessary to bring in charging, but we will work with local authorities in order to determine what the best approach is,” he said. He described charging as “a blunt instrument,” saying he would prefer to use “a series of surgical interventions.” “That’s both fairer to drivers and also likely to be more effective, more quickly in the areas that count,” he said. On the idea of a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles, he said he had no ideological objection to the idea but insisted it was up to local councils to do the hard work and put them forward. “Everyone acknowledges that scrappage schemes in the past have been poor value for money,” he said. “Essentially they pay people for something they are already going to do.”

But speaking for Client Earth, air quality lawyer Anna Heslop said the plan would fail without a national network of clean air zones, which the Government’s own evidence showed would be the most effective option. “We will be holding the Government to account on this,” she said. “They have been in breach of these limits for seven years, and we will continue to do that.” [53]

European Commission: The Final Word?

Whilst the Government’s air quality plan shifts the burden of responsibility onto local authorities, its press release also places part of the blame for rising NO2 levels on the EU. It states: “The UK is one of 17 EU countries breaching annual targets for nitrogen dioxide, a problem which has been made worse by the failure of the European testing regime for vehicle emissions.” Given the fact that the Government was aware of the flawed data in its projections of NO2 emissions, as mentioned above, one can only describe this comment as somewhat hypocritical. It is also ironic given the fact that in February 2014 the European Commission began infringement proceedings against the UK for its failure to reduce NO2 levels. The EC issued a “letter of formal notice” to the UK Government, which is the first stage in a process that could culminate in the imposition of fines by the European Court of Justice. [54] And in February this year, the EC issued the UK with a final warning to comply with air quality laws that have been breached for the last seven years. [55] In a press release, the EC said NO2 emissions were over the legal limit in 16 air quality zones in the UK, including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. According to BBC News, Alexander Winterstein, speaking on behalf of the EC, was asked whether the UK would remain bound by any legal proceedings after leaving the EU. “For as long as the UK is a member of the European Union, rights and obligations apply,” he said. [56] As mentioned above, evidence submitted in court has suggested that the Government’s timetable on this issue is motivated by the prospect of EU fines, rather than the need to comply with a legal requirement in as short a time as possible, and the latest plan does little to suggest otherwise.


Photograph: Hope Street, Glasgow © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says: “According to Friends of the Earth, this is the most polluted street in Scotland for nitrogen dioxide, resulting from vehicle exhaust fumes.” In 2016. the nitrogen dioxide level at Hope Street, Glasgow, was an average of 65µg/m3. See ‘Scotland’s Most Polluted Streets Revealed – 5 New Pollution Zones Declared’, Friends of the Earth Scotland press release, 15/01/2017. Accessed from: https://foe.scot/press-release/scotland-s-most-polluted-streets-revealed-5-new-pollution-zones-declared/.


[1] ‘Plan for roadside NO2 concentrations published’, UK Government press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plan-for-roadside-no2-concentrations-published.
[2] See Martin Goodman, ‘An Air That Kills’, in Client Earth: Building an ecological civilisation, Martin Goodman and James Thornton, London: Scribe Publications, 2017.
[3] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[4] Quoted by Ian Johnston in ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[5] ‘Air Quality Standards’, European Commission, last updated 22/09/2017. Accessed from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/standards.htm.
[6] Implementation of the Air Quality Directive. A study for the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Nagl, C., Schneider, J., and Thielen, P. April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578986/IPOL_STU(2016)578986_EN.pdf.
[7] Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, Royal College of Physicians, February 2016. Available as a PDF from: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution.
[8] Ibid: see [2].
[9] For a summary of the steps leading up to the UK Supreme Court ruling in 2015, see The UK Supreme Court ruling in the ClientEarth case: Consequences and next steps, Client Earth, September 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2015-09-17-the-uk-supreme-court-ruling-in-the-clientearth-case-consequences-and-next-steps-ce-en.pdf.
[10] Ibid: see [2].
[11] Ibid: see [5].
[12] As reported by Martin Goodman: see [2].
[13] Ibid: see [12]. For the judgement, see ‘R (on the application of ClientEarth) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent)’, Supreme Court Judgements, 29 April 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2012-0179-judgment.pdf.
[14] ‘UK Supreme Court orders Government to take “immediate action” on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 29/04/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-supreme-court-orders-government-take-immediate-action-air-pollution/.
[15] ‘UK Ministers facing new legal action over air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 14/09/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-ministers-facing-new-legal-action-over-air-pollution/. See also the earlier statements: ‘Government Ministers ignoring ruling on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 11/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-ministers-ignoring-ruling-on-air-pollution, and ‘Government releases air pollution plans’, Client Earth press release, 12/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-releases-air-pollution-plans/
[16] Ibid: see [2].
[17] Evidence of the Treasury’s involvement emerged at a hearing at the High Court in October 2016. See: ‘Government denied clean air zones to dangerously polluted UK cities’, Client Earth press release, 26/10/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-denied-clean-air-zones-dangerously-polluted-uk-cities/.
[18] ‘”Arrogant” UK Government response to air quality will face court challenge’, Client Earth press release, 17/12/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/arrogant-uk-government-response-to-air-quality-will-face-court-challenge/.
[19] ‘ClientEarth takes government back to court over killer air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 18/03/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-takes-government-back-court-killer-air-pollution/.
[20] Air Quality, House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 27 April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmenvfru/479/479.pdf . For a summary, see Damian Carrington, ‘MPs: UK air pollution is a “public health emergency”‘, The Guardian, 27/04/2016, at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/27/uk-air-pollution-public-health-emergency-crisis-diesel-cars.
[21] Ibid [20], Paragraph 43. The EU’s decision to implement ‘real world’ tests was announced in a press release in February 2016. See: ‘Vehicle emissions in real driving conditions: Council gives green light to second package’, European Council press release, 12/02/2016. Accessed from: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/02/12-vehicle-emissions-in-real-driving-conditions-2nd-package/. The European Commission’s regulations on vehicle emissions are summarised in ‘Air pollution from the main sources – Air emissions from road vehicles’ at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/sources/road.htm. The EC says: “To deal with high on-road emissions from passenger vehicles, where a significant discrepancy with the laboratory testing has been confirmed in recent years, the Commission has developed the Real-Driving Emissions test procedure, which will apply from 1 September 2017.” On emission limits, the EC says: “Euro 5 and 6 Regulation 715/2007/EC sets the emission limits for cars for regulated pollutants, in particular nitrogen oxides (NOX, i.e. the combined emissions of NO and NO2 ) of 80mg/km.” Part of the problem of setting emission limits is the availability of accurate data on ‘real world’ driving conditions. However, an article in the Guardian which appeared shortly before the Efra report reported that “the most comprehensive set of data yet published” showed that “97% of all modern diesel cars emit more toxic nitrogen oxide pollution than the official limit when driven on the road.” See Damian Carrington, Gwyn Topham and Peter Walker, ‘Revealed: nearly all new diesel cars exceed official pollution limits’, The Guardian, 23/04/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/23/diesel-cars-pollution-limits-nox-emissions. The Guardian report says that the new data followed the publication earlier in the week by the Department for Transport of emissions results for 37 vehicles, “all of which emitted more NOX on the road than the official limit – but the new data covers more than 250 vehicles in more stringently standardised road conditions. The data was collected and published by testing specialists Emission Analytics and is available at http://equaindex.com/.
[22] Damian Carrington, ‘Sadiq Khan joins air pollution court case against UK government’, The Guardian, 26/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/26/sadiq-khan-joins-air-pollution-court-case-against-uk-government.
[23] Adam Vaughan and Esther Addley, ‘Boris Johnson “held back” negative findings of air pollution report’, The Guardian, 17/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/17/boris-johnson-held-back-negative-findings-of-air-pollution-report.
[24] Ibid: see [22].
[25] Paragraph 86 in ‘Approved Judgment of the High Court: ClientEarth (Claimant) v Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defendant)’, Citation Number: [2016] EWHC 2740, Case Number: CO/1508/2016, 02/11/2016. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2016-11-02-high-court-judgment-on-clientearth-no-2-vs-ssefra-on-uk-air-pollution-plans-ext-en.pdf.
[26] Ibid [25], Paragraph 85.
[27] Ibid [25], Paragraph 66.
[28] Ibid [25], Paragraph 50.
[29] ‘ClientEarth wins air pollution case in High Court’, Client Earth press release, 02/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/major-victory-health-uk-high-court-government-inaction-air-pollution/.
[30] ‘High Court gives UK Government 8 months to draw up fresh air quality plan,’ Client Earth press release, 21/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-gives-uk-government-8-months-draw-fresh-air-quality-plan/.
[31] The procrastination episode is detailed in a string of press releases from Client Earth. See:
(a) ‘UK Government makes last-ditch bid to delay essential clean air plans’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-makes-last-ditch-bid-delay-essential-clean-air-plans/.
(b) ‘High Court orders UK air pollution hearing’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-orders-air-pollution-hearing/.
(c) ‘High Court rules air pollution plans must be published before General Election’, Client Earth press release, 27/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/judge-refuses-uk-government-permission-delay-air-quality-plan-til-general-election/.
The UK Government chose not to appeal the High Court ruling. See: ‘Government will not appeal High Court ruling on air pollution plan deadline’, Client Earth press release, 02/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-will-not-appeal-high-court-ruling-air-pollution-plan-deadline/.
[32] ‘UK Government releases ‘weak’ air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 05/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-releases-weak-air-quality-plans/.
[33] ‘ClientEarth challenges UK government’s air pollution consultation’, Client Earth press release, 31/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-challenges-uk-governments-air-pollution-consultation/.
[34] ‘High Court judgment on air pollution a “shot across the bows” of government’, Client Earth press release, 05/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-judgment-air-pollution-shot-across-bows-government/.
[35] Ibid: see [1].
[36] Grace Rahman, ‘Motorways could be covered with large tunnels to trap pollution’, The Independent, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/pollution-motorway-tunnels-cover-roads-air-quality-highways-england-a7874221.html.
[37] Highways England Air Quality Strategy, 02/08/2017. Available as a PDF from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/highways-england-air-quality-strategy. The agency also says it has previously trialled paint that ‘eats’ oxides of nitrogen alongside the road network.
[38] Rob Merrick, ‘Petrol-diesel car ban: Government plan dismissed as “smokescreen” after key air pollution policies dumped’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-policies-michael-gove-environment-groups-deaths-a7860361.html.
[39] Ibid: see [1].
[40] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[41] ‘ClientEarth demands urgent clarification on UK government’s air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 16/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-demands-urgent-clarification-uk-governments-air-quality-plans/.
[42] Liam Kirkaldy, ‘ClientEarth calls for clarity on Scottish Government air pollution plans’, Holyrood Magazine, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.holyrood.com/articles/news/clientearth-calls-clarity-scottish-government-air-pollution-plans. In an earlier press release, Client Earth said the Government’s air quality plan “fails to ensure proper measures will clean up illegal pollution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and that it would be raising the lack of detail about the devolved regions at the High Court hearing on 5th July 2017. See: ‘UK Government has a duty to protect all UK citizens from pollution’, Client Earth press release, 03/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-duty-protect-all-citizens-air-pollution-environmental-lawyers/.
[43] Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington, ‘Government’s air quality plan branded inadequate by city leaders, The Guardian, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/governments-air-quality-plan-is-cynical-headline-grabbing-say-critics.
[44] ‘Diesel and petrol car ban: Clean air strategy “not enough”‘, BBC News, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40731164.
[45] Ibid: see [43].
[46] Ian Johnston, ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[47] Ibid: see [43].
[48] Ibid: see [44].
[49] Ibid: see [46].
[50] Ibid: see [43].
[51] Ibid: see [46].
[52] For a summary, see [38].
[53] Ibid: see [38].
[54] ‘Environment: Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems’, European Commission press release, 20/02/2014. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-154_en.htm. The Commission gave the UK two months to respond before raising the issue with the European Court of Justice, but Client Earth reported in September 2015 that the case was on hold pending the conclusion of the Client Earth case (see [9]).
[55] ‘Commission warns Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom of continued air pollution breaches’, European Commission press release, 15/02/2017. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-238_en.htm.
[56] ‘Air pollution “final warning” from European Commission to UK’, BBC News, 1151/02/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38980510.


Sustainability in Action – Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Local projects across the UK are demonstrating the effectiveness of innovation in renewable energy and sustainability

October 19th 2016

‘Think global, act local’ is a slogan that has been taken up by the green movement as encapsulating the need to develop local initiatives in order to tackle the dual challenge of climate change and of protecting the planet’s resources for future generations. Local initiatives can include a range of activities that encompass personal and social behaviour, such as what we buy, what we eat, and how we travel. In this article we look at a number of local initiatives that may be small-scale in nature, but demonstrate “big ideas” in their ambition to develop alternative sources of energy.

Wind and Solar: the Isle of Muck

The Isle of Muck is a small island off the coast of Scotland, neighbouring the Isle of Eigg and lying south of the Isle of Skye. At two miles long and a mile wide, the Isle of Muck is tiny in comparison with its neighbours. It has one sheep farm, one hotel, and about 40 inhabitants. Until the spring of 2013, the island was dependent for its power on diesel generators, the fuel for which was shipped from the mainland. Electricity was rationed, with power only available from 8am until 11am and from 5pm until midnight.

All of this changed when the islanders were successful in obtaining a grant of £978,840 from the Big Lottery Fund to build a source of renewable energy that could power the entire island. Their plans were based on a similar scheme on the neighbouring Isle of Eigg, which was designed by the renewable energy company Wind & Sun. The islanders contracted the same company to design and build the plant on the Isle of Muck. The scheme uses wind turbines from the UK manufacturer Evance Wind (now Britwind), alongside solar panels and a backup diesel generator. The wind and solar system now provides 24hr electricity.

John Balson from Evance Wind was on the island to supervise the installation of the last wind turbine and to show the islanders how to maintain the equipment. On the system’s effectiveness, he said: “I’m pleased to say once we put the turbines and the solar panels in at the beginning of March, the generator has only been on for a short period on one occasion when there was very little wind and no sun.” The story was reported in a news item and a video by the Telegraph in June 2013.

Evance Wind subsequently entered administration in May 2014, just when the development of a design for a new innovative horizontal-axis windmill was 90% complete. However, the renewable energy company Ecotricity stepped in to rescue the company and Evance Wind, under the new name of Britwind, continues to manufacture small windmills for its target market. The company specialises in small windmills that provide on-site wind power for small and medium-sized enterprises and a variety of properties such as schools, community centres, sport centres, farms and other landholdings. Its R9000 windmill is the most popular small windmill in the UK market. [1]

Water: Ludlow Hydro

For the inhabitants of a remote island, far removed from the National Grid, necessity – rather than global thinking – may be the “mother of invention.” But in Ludlow, a small market town in Shropshire, this is not the case. Ludlow has a long tradition of local initiatives that encompass the ‘think global, act local’ philosophy, such as farmers’ markets, cycle to work schemes, and renewable energy schemes. Many of these initiatives are coordinated by Ludlow 21, an organisation that takes its name from Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development adopted by the United Nations in 1992.

One such initiative is the Ludlow Hydro Co-operative, who this year launched a scheme using the power of water to generate enough electricity to supply about 40 households. The power comes from the natural flow of the River Teme as it passes the Horseshoe Weir at Ludford, and the scheme uses an Archimedes screw which allows fish to pass through safely. Local MP Philip Dunne attended the launch to switch on the scheme. He said it had been a huge achievement to introduce a twenty-first century energy generation scheme to the River Teme without spoiling the aspect of the Horseshoe Weir, as “the weir is one of the most sensitive heritage assets within the historic town of Ludlow.”

“As a member of the co-operative myself,” he said, “I was very pleased to switch on Ludlow’s latest renewable energy scheme, not least because I have for some time called for more energy to be harnessed from our local rivers. The UK renewable energy market has developed markedly over the past decade, with renewable electricity capacity in the UK trebling since 2010. Renewable schemes like Ludlow Hydro, with the consent and support of the local community, will play an increasingly important role in delivering energy in the UK as older, less clean sources of electricity come offline.”

“Our aspiration is sustainable mobility”

The River Teme features again in another story of innovation with regard to sustainability, in this case a car that makes carbon emissions a thing of the past. The car designer Riversimple established an office in Ludlow some years ago, overlooking the river. It also has a design centre in Barcelona and an R&D centre in Llandrindod Wells in Powys. The company says its purpose is “to pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport.” To this end, it has manufactured a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The prototype is called the Rasa, named after the Latin tabula rasa, meaning ‘a blank slate’:

“We began with a hydrogen fuel cell, a manifesto for sustainable design and a blank sheet of paper. Every aspect of the Rasa has been created and interrogated for simplicity, efficiency, lightness, strength, affordability, safety and sustainability… This first car is a two seater ‘network electric’ car, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The engineering prototype has clocked over 60mph and has been weaving neatly through the traffic in London, as well as gliding down the country lanes of Powys.”

The Rasa has a range of 300 miles, refuels in a few minutes and has no cost premium compared with a conventional car. As for how the technology works, the company says: “The hydrogen passes through a ‘proton exchange membrane’ in the fuel cell where it combines with oxygen to form water and electricity. The electricity then flows to the motors in each wheel. These motors are small, lightweight and give the car four-wheel drive. When the car brakes, the kinetic energy which is normally lost in the form of heat is captured as electricity. As the car slows, this electricity floods into a bank of super-capacitors at the front of the car. Unlike a battery, these super-capacitors can take a huge charge very quickly, but they don’t store a lot of energy. The energy they take in is sent back to the motors again and provides the energy to accelerate. The reason we are calling it a ‘network electric’ car is that the energy is networked around the car. It can flow in any direction on any path apart from back into the fuel cell.”

Riversimple says its aspiration is “sustainable mobility” and has set a target to go into production towards the end of 2018, rolling out the car across the UK town by town, in tandem with hydrogen refuelling stations. “Further Riversimple vehicles will follow as the infrastructure matures,” the company says: “The next step is to build a series of Rasa cars for the public to test and refine in a twelve-month trial.”

The twelve-month trial is due to start in 2017, thanks to a partnership with Monmouthshire County Council. The company will supply 20 hand-built hydrogen cell cars to residents in the county for them to test. The trial marks the first phase of a longer-term plan to develop a community of users around a single hydrogen refuelling station. As part of this initiative, a self-service, mobile refuelling point is planned for a council car park at Monmouth or Abergavenny.

Riversimple brought their car to Parliament in July to explain their long-term plans to MPs, including Ludlow MP Philip Dunne. Riversimple founder Hugo Spowers said the MPs were overwhelmingly supportive of both the company’s ethos and its radical business approach, which involves crowd-funding and investment from the general public. “The UK government has recognised the potential of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,” he said, “and has already implemented forward-thinking projects that are promoting this cleaner alternative.”

The Government plans to make nearly every vehicle in the country zero-emission by 2050 and in May the Department of Transport launched a £2 million fund to encourage more businesses to switch to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles. The scheme allows local authorities, health trusts, police forces, fire brigades and private companies to bid for funding to add hydrogen-powered vehicles to their fleets. The fund builds on a previous commitment of £5 million in 2014 to the ‘Hydrogen for Transport Advancement Programme’ for twelve hydrogen refuelling stations. Announcing the scheme on the 10th of May, the Government said: “Today, Transport Minister Andrew Jones opened the second of these stations at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. All 12 stations are expected to be open by the end of the year, which is a significant step towards a national network.”

Meanwhile, on the roads…

On a related note, an innovative scheme has been installed in another small market town in Shropshire, which is designed to prevent traffic incidents that occur when two large vehicles, such as buses, coaches, or heavy goods vehicles, are travelling in opposite directions and find themselves meeting at a narrow stretch of road. This has been causing problems on a particular road in Much Wenlock, with large vehicles being forced to manoeuvre to pass each other, either by mounting the pavement or by forcing all vehicles to reverse.

In a news item, Shropshire Council explains how the problem has been resolved by installing an automated detection system in the road surface. The detection equipment will determine if two large vehicles are likely to meet at the narrow point. If so, one set of traffic signals will change to red to stop one direction of traffic and allow the other, including the large vehicle, to pass through without meeting opposing traffic. Additional detection equipment in the road surface will determine when the large vehicle has passed through the narrow point; the traffic signals will then change to green to allow the opposing traffic to continue. The traffic signals will only stop traffic when it is predicted that both large vehicles are due to meet at the narrow point. At all other times the two-way traffic will not be impeded.

Shropshire Council says, using sample traffic data, an incident involving large vehicles is expected to occur four or five times within peak morning and afternoon periods, and less frequently at other times, but this will vary depending on the time of year and what vehicles are using the road at the time.

The scheme was designed for Shropshire Council by Mouchel Consulting and constructed by Dynniq UK, and the traffic signals were switched on in September following a period of testing. Such a scheme would be an obvious benefit to other market towns in the county and elsewhere, such as Ludlow, where large vehicle incidents in the past have caused damage to historic buildings. It remains to be seen however whether exporting the system to a different location would be as simple as it sounds.


[1] When the takeover was announced in November 2014, Ecotricity said it had a small vertical-axis turbine at a similar stage of development to the Evance model, and the two new windmill designs were going through the final accreditation under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme before being launched onto the market under the Britwind label. Ecotricity founder Dale Vince said of the new company: “Britwind will design and manufacture 100% British windmills that are some of the most innovative in the world – they will bring big wind performance to small wind.” The two new designs, which were planned for delivery in 2015, are Ecotricity’s V6, a vertical-axis 6kW windmill known as the Urbine, and Evance Wind’s H15, a, horizontal-axis 15kW windmill which, according to Ecotricity, will cut the cost of producing electricity by about 40% compared to the R9000.


Photograph: Sunset over the Isle of Muck © Copyright Keith Duncan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photograph was taken from Fascadale on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The islanders obtain their power from a wind and solar system that provides 24hr electricity.

Scottish Contaminated Land Forum Annual Conference 2015

“Advances in Land Contamination Assessment and Remediation”

Sept 11th 2015

The Scottish Contaminated Land Forum will be holding its sixth annual conference next week at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. The event is being held on 16th September and is focused on recent advances in land contamination assessment and remediation.

The draft programme for the day includes poster presentations, talks and discussions, including presentations on:

  • the importance of the design, installation and verification of gas protection measures
  • a review of the updated BS8485 and other recent guidance on ground gas
  • methods for reducing dissolved chlorinated hydrocarbon concentrations
  • methods of hydrocarbon analysis
  • the environmental forensic analysis of coal tar

The day’s events will also see a presentation on using old insurance to fund remediation, and a session on the SoBRA accreditation scheme. For more information see the Scottish Contaminated Land Forum website.


The Scottish Contaminated Land Forum (SCLF) says: “SCLF encourages and promote the effective and sustainable reuse of contaminated land in Scotland and elsewhere, positively contributing to future economic growth and quality of life for people and communities. Our members are drawn from the public and private sector including regulators, consultants, contractors and service providers and we welcome new members so come and join in. Our quarterly forum meetings and annual conference aid knowledge sharing in the industry and provide an easy atmosphere for networking. We were established with the assistance of Scottish Enterprise with our main objectives to bring together contaminated land professionals of all kinds, to arrange meetings for information exchange and to promote and develop best practice among Scottish contaminated land practitioners.”

Flood Risk Management in Scotland – SEPA Consultation

SEPA sets out seven-year timetable for the delivery of flood risk management plans across Scotland

May 27th 2015

Next week sees the deadline for responses to SEPA’s consultation on how flood risk is managed in Scotland. SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) has described the consultation as “the most comprehensive assessment of flood risk and its impacts ever compiled in Scotland.” The consultation documents provide details of the most sustainable set of actions to help tackle flooding in areas identified as being at greatest risk across Scotland. They also provide information on those areas where the most benefits are to be gained by taking action. The deadline for comments is Tuesday 2nd June.

SEPA says that the consultation has been produced by SEPA in partnership with local authorities, following guidelines set out in the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009. The guidelines encourage a coordinated approach to the planning of flood risk management and more partnership working between public bodies that have responsibilities for raising awareness of flood risk in Scotland. Those bodies include SEPA, Scottish Water, the Forestry Commission Scotland, the National Park authorities and local authorities.

For the purposes of managing flood risk, Scotland has been divided into 14 Local Plan Districts. These geographical areas are designated by Scottish Ministers on the recommendations of SEPA, and each Local Plan District has a Lead Local Flood Authority agreed by all the local authorities represented in that district.

SEPA has set out a seven-year timetable for the delivery of flood risk management plans across Scotland. Following feedback from the consultation, SEPA plans to publish a flood risk management strategy for each of the Local Plan Districts in December 2015. The strategies will confirm the immediate priorities for flood risk management and set out the future direction for each Lead Local Flood Authority. The lead authorities will coordinate the production of a Local Flood Risk Management Plan and will publish delivery plans in June 2016. The delivery plans will set out how actions to manage flood risk will be coordinated, funded and delivered between 2016 and 2022.

Scotland’s Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Dr Aileen McLeod, has described the consultation as “another important milestone in the implementation of the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009.”

For more information on the consultation, see “Flood Risk Management Scotland”.

Waste Management News – October 2014

Fly-tipping, EFRA Waste Report, and National Planning Policy

Oct 30th 2014

Farmers warned following huge fly-tipping scam

Farmers have been warned to be on their guard following a huge fly-tipping scam in which large quantities of industrial waste were disguised as bags of silage and dumped on a disused farm near Edinburgh Airport. Kerry Barr, NFU Scotland’s manager for the Lothian region, said in the Farmers Weekly, “We’ve never seen fly tipping on this scale before.” The NFU has advised farmers to check any disused sheds to make sure nothing similar has been dumped.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has been appealing for witnesses following the incident, which was recorded in July. Approximately 200 tonnes of building rubble, paper and clothing were hidden in the 600 bales which were dumped in sheds and outbuildings. It is estimated that the legal disposal of the waste would have cost £60,000.

SEPA’s Executive director Calum MacDonald has advised farmers and landowners to review security on their properties. “When intact the bales have the exact same appearance as an agricultural silage bale and this may be why this wasn’t noticed when the waste was deposited at the site,” he said. SEPA says this is the first time it has come across waste being deliberately disguised as agricultural produce in Scotland, but it does know of such cases in other parts of the UK and in Europe.

Waste Management Report published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA)

The EFRA Committee (appointed by the House of Commons to scrutinise Defra’s policies, expenditure and administration) has published a report of an inquiry into waste management which followed Defra’s decision to step back from certain areas of waste management. The report covers waste management in England. In its summary, EFRA says that Defra decided to step back in April 2014 “in areas where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure,” yet at the same time stated its commitment to moving towards a “zero waste economy.”

The report makes a number of recommendations covering four main areas:

  • Sustainable waste and resource management: Instead of stepping back, “Defra should take the lead role and responsibility for waste management policy and ensure that the value of waste as a resource is fully realised.” EFRA estimates that about 177 million tonnes of waste is thrown away every year in England. About 43% of household waste was recycled in England in 2012-13 but the annual rate of increase has started to slow. The Committee is concerned that England will not play its role in meeting the European requirement for the UK to recycle at least 50% of its household waste by 2020 without significant Government intervention. This is particularly worrying, EFRA says, in light of recent proposals from the European Commission to increase household recycling targets to 70% by 2030. It calls on Defra to facilitate and encourage learning from best practice to help local authorities achieve the best possible recycling service in their area.
  • Waste treatment capacity: EFRA is concerned about “the limited availability of waste treatment capacity in England and the resulting popularity of exporting refuse-derived fuel to Europe.” It urges Defra to provide the waste sector with clear guidance on how much waste treatment capacity is needed to gain an optimal balance between export and local treatment.
  • Anaerobic digestion plants: The greatest benefit of this technology is in dealing with waste, says EFRA, not purpose-grown crops. It also says that anaerobic digestion is the most preferable recovery option for food waste, yet about four million tonnes of food waste still gets sent to landfill each year. It urges the Government to “find ways of diverting more food waste out of the residual waste stream by methods which are economically and environmentally viable and suitable to local circumstances.”
  • Incinerators: The Committee urges Defra to ensure that only genuinely residual waste is sent to energy from waste plants such as incinerators. It does not believe that high levels of recycling are incompatible with the use of energy from waste plants, as long as only genuinely residual waste is sent for energy recovery. EFRA also recommends that the Government encourages the use of heat outputs from incinerators to gain maximum efficiencies from the process.

EFRA also recommends that the Government takes action to reduce the number of fires at waste management sites. The full report is available as a PDF download – see the parliament website for further details.

National Planning Policy for Waste

Defra meanwhile has published a National Planning Policy for Waste, which builds on the Government’s Waste Management Plan for England. Defra says that the Waste Management Plan “sets out the Government’s ambition to work towards a more sustainable and efficient approach to resource use and management.” It says that, in preparing Local Plans, waste planning authorities should “drive waste management up the hierarchy.” The hierarchy places priorities on methods of waste management, with prevention as the first priority and disposal as the last resort, as follows:

  • Prevention: “The most effective environmental solution is often to reduce the generation of waste, including the re-use of products.”
  • Preparing for Re-Use: “Products that have become waste can be checked, cleaned or repaired so that they can be re-used.”
  • Recycling: “Waste materials can be reprocessed into products, materials, or substances.”
  • Other Recovery: “Waste can serve a useful purpose by replacing other materials that would otherwise have been used.”
  • Disposal: “The least desirable solution where none of the above options is appropriate.”

The policy also advises planning authorities to “consider the need for additional waste management capacity of more than local significance” and sets out guidelines for identifying need for waste management facilities by using a proportionate evidence base. Further guidelines are provided on identifying suitable sites and areas for waste management facilities, determining planning applications, and monitoring and reporting.


Photograph: Waterbeach Waste Management Park, near Chittering, Cambridgeshire © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Forecasting Flood Risk from Surface Water Flooding

Scottish Flood Forecasting Service launches grid-based surface water flood risk forecasting system in Glasgow

August 12th 2014

A new system for forecasting surface water flood risk became operational in Glasgow last month, and was up and running before the opening of the Commonwealth Games. The new surface water flood risk forecasting system has been developed by the Scottish Flood Forecasting Service, a strategic partnership between the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Met Office, in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Deltares and the James Hutton Institute. The system is thought to be the UK’s first operational grid-based surface water flood risk forecasting system with a 24-hour lead time.

Surface water flooding occurs when rainfall is unable to drain away naturally or artificially and instead flows across the surface, the problem being exacerbated by the impermeable surfaces of much of our urban environment. In Scotland, SEPA estimates that 38% of the impact of flooding is due to surface water flooding. Providing real-time surface water flood risk forecasts has been a challenge due to the dominant meteorological driver being convective storms, which are often highly localised and very difficult to predict. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been doing research on surface water flooding and its researchers have developed a Grid-to-Grid model which is a key component of the new tool.

Steve Cole, scientist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “Due to high uncertainty in forecasting the precise location of rainfall, particularly in convective situations, a probabilistic ensemble approach has been needed for the new Glasgow surface water flood risk forecast tool. A particularly novel aspect is that the tool goes beyond forecasting the likely location of surface water flooding to embrace information on potential impacts on people, property and transport. This should help emergency responders make more timely and better informed decisions.”

Further information on the new system is available from the Scottish Flood Forecasting Service at “Surface water flood forecasting model for Glasgow now live”.

For the background to the project, see the CREW website at “Surface water flood forecasting for urban communities”.

Ground gas risk – 64 homes built over disused mine workings will now be demolished

Gorebridge estate planned for demolition following meeting of Midlothian Council

June 18th 2014

Following a meeting of Midlothian Council yesterday (June 17th), 64 homes in the Newbyres Crescent estate in Gorebridge are set to be demolished in order to protect residents from the danger of carbon dioxide gas leaking into the properties from disused coal mines. Gorebridge is a former mining town situated some ten miles south-east of Edinburgh and the homes were built over a two-year period from 2007 but without the protective barrier of a gas membrane underneath. The Council have said that a gas membrane was installed at a nearby care home, but not underneath 10 further care homes near Gore Avenue, and the latter are now also set to be demolished.

The problem first came to light when two people sought hospital treatment in September 2013, following which the Council instigated a programme of air quality monitoring. Five homes on the estate were vacated when the air monitoring equipment recorded higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide. Independent experts advised the Council that a number of factors coming together, such as extreme low pressure weather conditions, would increase the risk of the gas entering the properties. In May last month, residents were told that the Council was considering a number of options, such as inserting gas membranes into the properties, but were warned that all of the options would require them to vacate their properties for at least three months. However, a public meeting held last week to discuss the options presented only two options, both of which required demolition of the properties.

Following yesterday’s meeting, Owen Thompson, the leader of Midlothian Council, said that “demolition is the only option which will rule out entirely the possibility of further leaks of carbon dioxide into these homes over the longer term.” The final decision on what to do with the cleared land will be delayed until the multi-agency group managing the public health implications of the situation have completed an analysis of an options appraisal. Owen Thompson said: “Our first priority is protecting residents’ health. Meanwhile we are currently taking legal advice in relation as to whether any of the consultants or contractors engaged by the council failed to comply with their legal obligations.”

A report in The Scotsman has said that the estate cost £6m to build, and it estimates that demolishing the homes and rebuilding the estate would cost a further £12m.

It is unclear from the Council’s report whether a ground gas risk assessment was carried out before the estate was built. The outcome, however, does confirm the fact that adequate risk assessments of potentially contaminated land are essential and can save developers money in the long-term. Legal proceedings are costly and a developer may be liable for compensation should a danger to human health be discovered, even if the discovery occurs years after the development is completed.

For the press release that was issued after yesterday’s meeting, see the Council’s website at “Demolition plan for gas-risk Gorebridge estate | Midlothian Council”.