The government’s £3bn clean air strategy does not go “far enough or fast enough”, say campaigners.
Moves including scrapping new diesel and petrol cars from 2040 and £255m for councils to tackle air pollution locally have been welcomed.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the government was determined to deliver a “green revolution”.
But environmental groups criticised the decision not to include a scrappage scheme or immediate clean air zones.
The government report includes the promise of £40m immediately to start local schemes rolling, which could include changing road layouts, retrofitting public transport or schemes to encourage people to leave their cars at home.
The funding pot will come from changes to tax on diesel vehicles and the reprioritising departmental budgets – the exact details will be announced later in the year.
If those measures do not cut emissions enough, charging zones for the most polluting vehicles could be the next step.
But campaigners say these are the measures that need to be implemented now to tackle environmental and health problems, with air pollution linked to about 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.
Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said air pollution “is a public health emergency” and said it was “frankly inexcusable” that the plans still did not go far enough.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas welcomed the 2040 announcement, but added: “We also need action that tackles this health emergency in the coming months and years.
“Such action must include expanded clean air zones and a fully funded diesel scrappage scheme.
“It’s crucial that scrapping diesel doesn’t simply shift people into other types of car – instead we should use this opportunity to revamp out towns and cities with investment in walking and cycling, and by ensuring that public transport is affordable and reliable.”
Greenpeace UK’s clean air campaigner Areeba Hamid said 2040 was “far too late” and called for the UK to “lead the world in clean transport revolution”.
“It is vital we stay ahead now through a more ambitious phase-out date to boost our domestic market, as other countries are catching up,” she said.
Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said the plan saw the government “shunting the problem on to local authorities” and accused them of having a “squeamish attitude” towards clean air zones.
“With nearly 40 million people living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, action is needed now, not in 23 years’ time,” she added.
And London Mayor Sadiq Khan said people in the capital were “suffering right now” because of air pollution and “can’t afford to wait”.
“We need a fully-funded diesel scrappage fund now to get polluting vehicles off our streets immediately, as well as new powers so that cities across the UK can take the action needed to clean up our air,” he said.
The timetable for councils to come up with initial plans has been cut from 18 months to eight, with the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) wanting to “inject additional urgency” into the process.
It follows the government being given its own deadline of 31 July after High Court judges said it was failing to meet EU pollution limits.
Local Government Association environment spokesman Martin Tett said the plans to allow councils to switch their focus from monitoring air quality to improving air quality was the right move and welcomed the additional funding.
However, he opposed the view of the government to hold off on a scrappage scheme, arguing “this immediate intervention could help increase the uptake of lower emission vehicles”.
Mr Grayling said the new plan showed the government was “determined to deliver a green revolution in transport and reduce pollution in our towns and cities.”
He said ministers were taking “bold action” and wanted nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050.
By Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst
So how will the air be cleaned up? Plans for a diesel scrappage scheme for old vehicles have been rejected by the Treasury as poor value for money. They may be reconsidered in the autumn.
The government has told councils to solve pollution on their own streets by improving public transport and considering restrictions on dirty diesel vehicles at peak times.
If that doesn’t work, councils will be told to charge diesel drivers to come into towns.
The councils aren’t happy to take the rap for the controversial policy when it was the government that encouraged the sale of diesel vehicles in the first place.
Today’s government plan is not comprehensive – it doesn’t address pollution from construction, farming and gas boilers.
And clean air campaigners say the government is using the 2040 electric cars announcement to distract from failings in its short-term pollution policy.
Read more analysis from Roger
The UK announcement comes amid signs of an accelerating shift towards electric cars instead of petrol and diesel ones, at home and abroad:
- Earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron announced similar plans to phase out diesel and petrol cars in France, also from 2040
- BMW announced on Tuesday that a fully electric version of the Mini would be built at the Cowley plant in Oxford from 2019
- Swedish carmaker Volvo has said all new models will have an electric motor from the same year
Ford’s chief financial officer Bob Shanks told the BBC that he supported the ban and believed that Europe would be “ground zero” in leading a global trend to electric vehicles.
“There is already a lot of action under way in many of the major markets of the world, including the UK, and more broadly in Europe,” he said.
“We certainly see that trajectory being quite feasible, and is something that we support.”
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