We are now less than three weeks away from the Budget. All eyes will be on Chancellor Philip Hammond to address some of the nation’s most pressing issues- which of course includes air quality.

Britain’s air pollution problem

January 2010 was the deadline for EU Member States to comply with nitrogen oxide (NOx) concentration levels, as set out in the Ambient Air Quality Directive. For compliance purposes, the UK is split into 43 zones, and as of 2018, it remains in breach of NOx limits in 37 of those zones.

Ministers have rightly brought forward a number of plans and initiatives to improve Britain’s air, such as Clean Air Zones, the air quality plan for NOx emissions, the wide-ranging Clean Air Strategy, and more recently the Road to Zero Strategy. Receiving slightly less of the limelight, but just as crucial, have been two consultations on urban red diesel use.

Red diesel is the same as standard diesel you get at a petrol station. For a few specific agricultural and off-road purposes, it comes with significantly reduced duty, is therefore cheaper, and is marked with red dye for enforcement purposes. HM Treasury estimates that 15% of the UK’s diesel consumption is red diesel, and the Treasury foregoes £2.4 billion in tax revenue as a result.

So what’s the problem?

Given the need to improve urban air quality, increasingly, cleaner alternatives to diesel technologies are appearing on the market. Ministers have commendably invested in a range of clean technologies and should naturally look at whether subsidising diesel discourages uptake of those clean technologies.

One such area is transport refrigeration.

Transport refrigeration units (TRUs) are powered by secondary auxiliary engines that can use red diesel. These secondary engines, classed as non-road mobile machinery, are subject to weaker emission regulations too. This combination of weaker regulation and access to cheap diesel makes TRUs disproportionate polluters on Britain’s roads.

In fact, as The Sun recently pointed out, there are up to 34,000 diesel TRUs on Britain’s roads, polluting up to the equivalent of 1.8 million Euro 6 diesel cars. This is despite the availability of a number of clean TRUs. A switch to these should be incentivised, not least because of its huge impact and ministers will want to relieve pressure on diesel users elsewhere. And of course, it would also claw back revenue for the Treasury to the tune of £100 million.

Steps in the right direction

The Mayor of London’s Environment Strategy refers to red diesel and the need to financially incentivise a switch to ultra low emission technologies. Meanwhile ministers are preparing to bring forward a draft Environment Bill that will give local authorities greater powers to regulate TRU emissions.

These are both very promising developments. To further support them, a small but significant step would be ending red diesel access for TRUs. It may not be a ‘headline-grabbing’ move, but it would certainly be effective if we want to improve our air quality. It’s a quick and easy win, and one that would accrue revenue for the Treasury.

At the Environmental Industries Commission, we’ll be keeping an eye on the Chancellor’s full package of measures to tackle air pollution- let’s hope ending red diesel for TRUs is in there.

Matthew Farrow
Executive Director of the Environmental Industries Commission

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