The race against roadside pollution

12 September 2019

Businesses need to get up to speed with Clean Air Zones

Poor air quality is one of the biggest threats to public health that exists today. In fact, a 2016 report by the Royal College of Physicians revealed that outdoor air pollution causes around 40,000 deaths in the UK annually. Polluted air is linked to a host of major health issues, including asthma, cancer, dementia, heart disease and strokes. The illnesses and premature deaths that arise from air pollution cost the UK more than £20 billion every year. 

Clean Air Strategy

To combat the threat of air pollution, the government launched its Clean Air Strategy in January 2019. The strategy aims to tackle all sources of air pollution, simultaneously protecting nature, boosting the economy, and saving lives. It addresses various sources of air pollution, including farming, homes, industry and transport.

Transport is the biggest source of air pollution in the UK, according to Environmental Protection UK. Indeed, surface transport is responsible for around a quarter of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Many towns and cities are failing to meet national air quality objectives – and breaching limits set out in the European Air Quality Standards – for certain pollutants such as particles and nitrogen dioxide. 

The Clean Air Strategy reinforces the government’s commitment to cutting pollution from all forms of transport for both freight and passengers. It also reiterates the government’s intention to transition the UK’s transport system to zero exhaust emissions vehicles, including electric cars, so that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans is ended by 2040.

  • Clean Air Zone framework

    The government sees the creation of Clean Air Zones within major cities as key to improving air quality and reducing pollution. In its Clean Air Zone Framework PDF, it defines a Clean Air Zone as an area where ‘targeted action is taken to improve air quality’ and has ‘a particular focus on measures to accelerate the transition to a low-emission economy’.

    Targeted action can be taken in a ‘charging’ or ‘non-charging’ form and can include charging or fining vehicles that do not comply with prescribed emissions standards; facilitating the use of ultra-low emission vehicles and using licensing to ensure that the emissions of buses, taxis and private hire vehicles meet Clean Air Zone standards.

  • London leading the way

    To date, London has led the way in developing initiatives that improve air quality for urban residents. It introduced the congestion charge in 2003, with the aim of encouraging motorists to use other modes of transport for travelling around the centre of the city. This led to a 23% fall in vehicle kilometres between 2000 and 2012. Then, in 2008, came the Low Emission Zone (LEZ), which covers most of Greater London.The LEZ uses a charging structure in order to encourage operators of the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles to move to more modern less polluting diesel vehicles.

    From 8 April 2019, London has also had the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which aims to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city by penalising all vehicles that fail to meet the Euro 4 and Euro 6 exhaust emission standards. Broadly speaking, this means pre-2015 diesel cars, pre-2006 petrol cars and light commercial vehicles (LCVs) will fall foul of the new tighter exhaust emissions standards and so will be subject to a £12.50 daily charge.

    Furthermore, all new London buses must be hybrid, hydrogen or electric while low emissions bus zones will exist in some of London’s worst polluted ‘hotspots’ by the end of 2019. Additionally, 5,000 older buses will be upgraded to be ultra low emission by October 2020.

  • Where next?

    The government has asked five other cities to introduce a Clean Air Zone by 2020, or else identify measures other than charging zones that would be effective at reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide emissions in the shortest possible time. The five affected cities are Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton. Manchester also has plans to introduce a Clean Air Zone in 2021. Local authorities are responsible for deciding how they will implement Clean Air Zones, or anti-pollution measures, within their own jurisdiction. 

    As Clean Air Zones are being implemented in different ways, by different local authorities, the result is a disparate approach overall, which risks causing confusion to businesses and other road users. A more uniform approach might be more helpful, although it may not be feasible to achieve. The government is providing some funding to help local authorities with the implementation of Clean Air Zones, but it is also prepared to impose financial penalties on those authorities that fail to meet its air quality targets.

Clean Air Zones: What’s happening where?


Discover the clean air zones

The British Vehicle Rental & Leasing Association’s interactive map can help you find which local authorities are considering or implementing clean air measures.

Implications for businesses

Clean Air Zones have significant cost implications for businesses that run commercial vehicles. So, they will need to start factoring these costs into their cashflow modelling and plan accordingly. The main options available to businesses are:

Consolidate loads

Businesses can minimise the charges they pay by consolidating loads outside of city centres and then driving lorries with full loads into the Clean Air Zones.

Lease or buy newer vehicles

Buses, coaches and HGVs that meet Euro VI emissions standards are exempt from any charges or restrictions that apply within Clean Air Zones. The same goes for ultra-low emission vehicles with a significant zero-emission range. So, switching to newer, cleaner diesel vehicles will save businesses money on charges.

Pay the charges

For businesses with limited exposure to Clean Air Zones, paying the charges may still be a more cost-effective and efficient option than consolidating loads or investing in newer vehicles – at least in the short term. 


Delivery service DPD is a good example of a business that has adapted to the introduction of Clean Air Zones. It opened an all-electric depot in central London ahead of the introduction of the ULEZ, specifically to carry out ‘last mile’ deliveries. DPD invested more than £500,000 to upgrade the site, introducing a new electric charging system. The facility’s fleet of all-electric vehicles can deliver 2,000 parcels a day, without incurring charges. 

What’s next?

Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades. Since 1970, sulphur dioxide emissions have decreased by 95%, particulate matter by 73%, and nitrogen oxides by 69%. Total UK emissions of nitrogen oxides fell by a further 19% between 2010 and 2015 PDF. However, poor air quality persists in certain areas of the country as a direct result of vehicle emissions.

Unlike greenhouse gases, the risk from NO2 is localised to particular places or individual roads. The effort to reduce NO2 also needs to target the sources that make the biggest contribution to the problem. Vehicles contribute about 80% of NO2 pollution at the roadside PDF. Given the local nature of the problem, local action is needed to achieve improvements in air quality. Therefore, Clean Air Zones are unlikely to be a temporary fixture in the urban landscape. 

In July 2017 the government instructed another 28 councils to draw up plans to tackle NO2 levels in the ‘shortest possible time’. Then, in March 2018, the government directed a further 33 local authorities PDF† to develop feasibility studies to identify measures for bringing roadside nitrogen dioxide levels in their areas within legal limits by 2021; these could include traffic management measures and retrofitting buses with technology that reduces harmful emissions.

Ultimately, every business that operates, or relies on, commercial vehicles needs to start thinking about Clean Air Zones. While the zones might only have a limited financial and logistical impact today, their impact is likely to be far greater in the not-too-distant future.

Further information

  • What are Euro emission restrictions?

    The Euro emissions standards define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions for new vehicles sold in the European Union and European Economic Area.

    These emission standards have been revised regularly through a succession of ever-more stringent requirements, leading to very significant drops in emissions of exhaust particulates and other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

    The acceptable limit for each of these pollutants differs for diesel, petrol and heavy-duty diesel vehicles. For example, diesel cars and light commercial vehicles (LCVs) have stricter carbon monoxide limits, but are allowed higher nitrogen dioxide emissions, than petrol cars and LCVs. Furthermore, the method used for measuring the emissions of heavy-duty diesel vehicles is completely different from that used for measuring the emissions of car and LCV engines. 

    These successive, increasingly stringent standards are known as Euro 2, Euro 3, Euro 4 and so on for cars and LCVs, and as Euro II, Euro III, Euro IV and so on for heavy-duty vehicles.

  • Brexit implications

    The government has been clear that it has no plans to change limit values and targets for air quality should the UK proceed with Brexit. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 would convert the current framework of air quality targets into UK Law. EU institutions would no longer play a role in monitoring and enforcing these targets, however.

    The Mayor of London has already confirmed to the London Assembly that Brexit would not affect the ULEZ emission standards criteria.

    Since the Euro emissions standards define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions for new vehicles sold in the European Union and European Economic Area, vehicle manufacturers will continue to use the EU classifications as their standard when producing new vehicles.

    While Brexit should not affect the implementation of Clean Air Zones in the short term, it is possible that the emission standards applied by the UK and the EU could diverge over time as EU legislation changes. The extent of this divergence would depend on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which is yet to be agreed.

    A major area that the government has indicated that it might change post-Brexit is how air quality is monitored and assessed in order to provide requirements that are more targeted towards UK needs. Any attempt to weaken the UK’s Air Quality and Environmental Standards would be vigorously opposed by environmental campaigners, however.

    You can find out more about how Barclays are preparing for Brexit and supporting our clients through this period, at our Key Information on Brexit page.

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