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AIR POLLUTION: Looking beyond CO2 emissions

Date: 01 June 2012

While CO2 continues to set the tone for car taxation in the UK, could other air pollutants start to impact the marketplace? Rachel Burgess reports

In the automotive world there remains a consistent focus on CO2 emissions and the impact they have, not only on the environment, but also your pocket.

While this continues there is little attention on other types of environmental damage caused by vehicles, yet local air pollution, which includes carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, low-level ozone and particulates contribute to an array of health concerns including heart disease, asthma and other respiratory problems.

"Low-level ozone irritates the linings of our lungs while particulates irritate our lung tissue and enter the bloodstream and are implicated in higher instances of heart and respiratory problems," says Don Potts, Volvo's environmental consultant. As a result, 20,000 people die in Britain every year from heart and respiratory problems triggered by poor air quality.

Diesel-powered vehicles are the worst culprits for these emissions while hybrids and electric vehicles are the least problematic. Euro standards do address these emissions - since 2000, average emissions from road transport have fallen with NOx down by over 40%, particulates reduced by around 30% and carbon monoxide cut by more than 60%, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Euro6 standards to be introduced in 2015 will push these figures even lower. Indeed, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests businesses "factor in air quality considerations by choosing vehicles that meet the highest vehicle emission standards for that vehicle type".

But these standards don't seem to be enough, with London due to be hit with a ?300m (£241m) fine for failing air quality standard targets. Potts explains: "There are particulate and NOx hotspots, which are exacerbated by sunny weather - sunlight turns oxides of nitrogen into low-level ozone and makes it difficult to breathe."

Defra also recommends fleets choose fuel types based on where and how much you drive - "diesel engines are often more fuel-efficient than petrol, but produce more of certain air pollutants. so a petrol vehicle may be the better option for those who mainly drive in towns and cities" - and also consider ultra-low carbon vehicles, hybrid or electric vehicles.

So should fleet managers be taking note? Yes, says car finance expert David Rawlings, who suspects CO2 may not remain the only emission for taxation in the future: "The Government has an obligation to protect the nation from respiratory problems, so it will be changing its focus and looking at other emissions such as NOx." He adds he doesn't expect anything dramatic before 2015, but does think the Government will put even more focus on pollution and sustainability over the next couple of years ahead of making changes.

Fleets must be aware of these pollutants, says Rawlings, as an environmentally friendly move as well as for possible future financial implications. Volvo's Potts adds: "Fleets should be paying attention to the issues, but on the whole they aren't as they're not fully informed and they only incur costs based on CO2."

However, senior consultant Chris Chandler at leasing firm Lex Autolease says tracking these types of emissions for taxation purposes will not be nearly as robust, consistent and effective as the current CO2 model: "Most crucially, this could merely spur everybody to switch from diesel to petrol, which would negatively impact on greenhouse gases and, potentially, tax receipts."

He argues that the market doesn't need a more complex tax system, such as one which uses a range of emissions. "We already have a system that works well and it brings in appropriate revenues," says Chandler.

In the future, firms that work in cities will need to consider air pollution, according to Paul Hollick, Alphabet sales and marketing director: "One sector that will feel their impact strongly will be businesses that need to move people and goods in cities. We will see more moves, such as entry charges and low-emission zoning, designed to preserve air quality by limiting the number of cars and vans operating in city centres."

He continues: "That's why we are developing products like the AlphaCity Corporate Car Sharing solution, which allows companies to maximise the productivity of each vehicle, not only in working hours but also during evenings and weekends. And going forward, similarly innovative approaches to multi-user car access will help fleet customers incorporate electric and hydrogen vehicles, which don't emit these pollutants at the tailpipe, into their urban mobility schemes."

Lex's Chandler says that if local pollution is a particular issue, for corporate social responsibility purposes or otherwise, then smart fleet managers will always select the right vehicle for the right job. He concludes: "The adoption of EVs, hybrids and other plug-in vehicles in such locations will not only minimise CO2 and other tailpipe emissions, but also the associated tax burden. However, fleets must ultimately remember that the key priority is to ensure that vehicles are fit for purpose."