Air quality analysis – why our approach needs a broad range of solutions

Defra recently published its new air quality plan which outlines measures for tackling roadside emission of NO2. This is set to be the first in a series of documents outlining the UK’s strategy to curtail air pollutants to an acceptable level under EU law. The headline message through media outlets focused on the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles in 2040. However, according to the recent publication, this was actually the restatement of a 2011 announcement to end conventional car and van sales by 2040 rather than a ban; with every car and van to be zero emission at the later date of 2050. A range of solutions exist to support with delivery of this commitment and to tackle other sources of air pollutants.

Tackling road side emissions

The air quality plan gives responsibility to local authorities to formulate and implement an action plan to improve air quality. A fund of £255m has been allocated; £40m of which is available immediately. Local Authorities are given the freedom to find a cost-effective solution which is likely to aid NO2 to reach EU-compliant levels in the shortest possible time. Electrical and hybrid technologies are one solution, however, these technologies are less compatible in longer distance, high power applications such as LGVs, HGVs and double decker buses, where diesel is the incumbent fuel. Fuel cells can offer a viable alternative with high efficiencies, long ranges and zero emissions. A strong case can also be made for fuel cells in small and medium sized vehicle fleets; short 3-minute refuelling times and 300-mile ranges make them a great choice for consumers for whom recharging times and range anxiety are a barrier to the take-up of battery electric vehicles. In developing their action plans, to provide solutions for more sectors, local authorities should incorporate the development of infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles alongside battery electric vehicles.

Tackling other sources of air pollution

Of course, transport is not the only source of air pollutants and NO2 not the only pollutant. The lack of a strategy to tackle other sources and pollutants until next year has also been heavily criticised in the media. Responses to the consultation on the draft air quality plan highlighted this issue and called for air pollution to be addressed as part of a broader approach to clean growth and industrial strategy. According to reports, gas combustion in buildings produces 21% of total NO­x emissions across Greater London and 38% in Central London and is likely to become the single biggest source of NOx emissions in Central London by 2020. Government needs to integrate heat, power and transport for a sustainable approach to tackle local air pollution; subsidising solutions which can be effective for an intersection of these policy areas and avoid regretful choices. For example, the subsidisation of biomass and solid renewable fuels in the RHI, whilst having a positive effect on reducing carbon emissions, has had a detrimental effect on local air quality especially in urban areas.  In contrast, fuel cells offer a low carbon CHP solution with negligible NOx and particulate emissions and can make a considerable contribution to improving air quality in urban areas. As such local authorities should consider tightening emission regulations in urban centres to avoid unintended consequences.

Electrification cannot solve all of the UK’s heating and transport problems due to the major infrastructure changes required (the Committee on Climate Change projects that it will only play a role in 10% of heating, 50% of all buses and HGVs). To deliver low emissions heating and transport over the long-term we need to consider a range of solutions. It’s time to look to the fuel cell as a no-regrets option to aid decentralisation of energy and deliver low carbon, low emissions heating and transport.

For more information please contact the author:

Clare Jackson

Hydrogen Hub Manager


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