By James Gordon
In life, they say that it is the small things that are most important. In the workplace another proverb, the ‘devil is in the detail’, is commonly used. It could so easily be applied to the government’s air quality plan, which was unveiled by Environment Secretary, Michael Gove last Wednesday.
For the government’s grand vision, which will see diesel vehicles and petrol cars phased out by 2040, to be truly effective, it will require collaboration from industry and buy-in from the public. The strategy, if it works, will herald a seismic and radical sea-change in how we think about transport infrastructure, both in terms of passenger vehicles and the commercial freight industry. But what will this landscape look like? Spall forward 20 or 30 years and nobody can be 100 percent sure, but it is likely that is will be an environment dominated by data; by connected electric vehicles, road traffic infrastructure, by intelligent products and innovative freight exchange platforms – all underpinned by vast data sets, which could one day help to deliver game-changing efficiencies.
That is of course a much wider vision for the future, which stems from looking to closely at the ‘micro’. So let’s zoom-out and return to the present day challenges of fulfilling targets set out in DEFRA’s air quality strategy.
Take the car industry for example. In an interview with Newsnight last week, Andy Palmer, the CEO of Aston Martin, likened the ambitious government plan of eliminating the internal combustion engine by 2040 in favour of manufacturing purely electric cars as “a moonshot” without “a NASA”.
Many more are worried by the charging infrastructure that would need to be created to support electrification, and also the unprecedented demands that a surge in zero emission vehicles would place on the National Grid.
The plan has also drawn criticism from environment campaigners too, who believe that in not introducing a diesel scrappage scheme for all vehicles, and failing to extend clean air zones beyond the six that have already been agreed, the government’s strategy does not go far enough.
And then there are commercial vehicles. According to the DfT, they account for just five percent of all freight miles, but are responsible for 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and for 21 percent N0x emissions emanating from the roadside.
And in the case of HGVs, there does not seem to be a viable alternative to diesel at present. Figures from the SMMT, for example, reveal that 99 per cent of all heavy commercial vehicles sold last year were powered by diesel.
With electrification in the commercial vehicle (CVs) sector still at an embryonic stage – and alternative fuels still struggling to establish themselves as a viable substitute to diesel, many operators are keen to invest in cleaner engines. Eminox, one of the UK’s leading designers and manufacturers of selective catalytic reduction (SCRT), says that retrofit options are now being used on buses and coaches to achieve the equivalent of Euro VI standard.
A spokesperson from Eminox said: “Although SCRT could in theory be retrofitted to heavy goods vehicles now, most operators choose to buy a new Euro VI tractor unit instead because of the residual value of older trucks…”
So why then does the DEFRA’s plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations [i] only include petrol and diesel cars?
Caroline Russell, the Green Party’s Transport spokesperson and London Assembly member, says, “While I cannot comment directly on the government’s clean air plan, my understanding is that diesel powered cars emit a far greater level of NOx compared per litre of fuel compared to large trucks and buses. Therefore, that is why the government wants to focus its efforts on banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars in 23 years’ time. But, that said, we cannot ignore larger polluting vehicles and the challenge going forwards will be to find a way of transporting freight in the most efficient, safest and sustainable way possible. Unless we see a sizeable increase in the volume of cargo that can be transported by rail, it is likely that large goods vehicles will continue to be deployed in long-distance intercity trips. However, it could be that logistics infrastructure including consolidation centres, logistics terminals, loading bays and storage terminals located on the edges of our cities and towns are built and linked together to ensure that smaller and cleaner vehicles perform last mile deliveries.”
However, Russell believes that it is “imperative that any future sustainable freight model minimises the number of large heavy goods vehicles that often deliver to small supermarkets in metropolitan areas”.
The role of freight exchange platforms
Therefore, could freight exchange platforms, which can help to reduce empty miles, consolidate loads and lower emissions, be more widely utilised in connecting much smaller compliant Euro V1 vehicles with non-compliant Euro IV and V trucks, which would then distribute goods through clean air zones?
Russell, who is also a Green Party Councillor for Highbury East in north London, says, “While I don’t wish to endorse or comment on any company or product, as a conceptual freight model, if hauliers are able to use freight exchange platforms as tools to collaborate to reduce empty mileage and make logistics as efficient as possible, then that has to be a good thing… And, in theory, if these platforms could link large non-complaint lorries to smaller vehicles that conform to government air quality standards, then that would help to reduce pollution levels and could also potentially lessen the risk of large goods vehicles coming into contact with the public.”
UK Plan for tackling roadside nitrogen oxide concentrations