Clean Air Zones will create new challenges – but these are challenges we must meet

At what point does the quality of the human habitat become more important than the freedom to trade or move around freely? The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is in no doubt, having brought forward the introduction of the first Ultra Low Emission Zone for London.

“London’s lethal air is one of the biggest health challenges of this generation,” the Mayor said, announcing he had pulled forward the introduction of the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) by 17 months to April 2019.

“We can’t continue breathing in air so toxic it harms children’s lung development and causes chronic illness and premature death. I am determined to take the bold action needed to address this scourge once and for all.”

Bold it is.

The BVRLA was taken aback. It had been calling for special consideration for fleet operators of commercial vehicles, saying many would now face a big challenge trying to upgrade their vehicles to meet the strict emission standards of Euro 6 diesels. This, the Mayor has ignored.

However, quite rightly, the BVRLA wants the government to get involved and set some consistent standards – for signage and enforcement – as other cities start to introduce clean air zones or air quality measures aimed at reducing local pollution.

Can you imaging how difficult it would be for fleet drivers facing client meetings in different cities with each city having its own clear air criteria? The potential for chaos is clear. I only hope the government listens to the BVRLA’s wisdom on this.

But it’s not just London that’s the problem city.

According to a new report by the Royal College of Physicians and Lancet Countdown, 44 UK cities are in breach of recommended World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for air quality.

And what shocked me was this – Glasgow has a higher rate of pollution than London. We’re based in Glasgow and I have to say the air quality sometimes is a little lacking – no question. But like London, steps are being taken to clean it up, starting next year with the phased introduction of a Clean Air Zone.

Now, before you think I’ve joined the anti-car lobby let me tell you this robustly: I most definitely have not.

But we have to start taking decisions to the benefit of society as a whole. It’s part of the business ethos here with our Fleet Alliance Loves programme that underpins all our operations.

Which is this: to be the best leasing and fleet management company in the UK by developing our employees personally and professionally, reducing fleet costs and the carbon footprint of our clients – the result of which is ethical and sustainable growth.

To date our eco-Fleet initiative has helped reduce our clients’ fleet carbon footprint by over 17 billion grams – the equivalent to taking over 4,000 cars off the road. Impressive figures that we’re justifiably proud of.

Of course when it comes to lowering emissions, manufacturers are the key players here. There’s no doubt we’re experiencing a renaissance in automotive technology. Looking back over the last few decades at how car makers have reduced CO2 output suggests that NOx – the current tailpipe target – will be reduced in much the same way.

So, while Clean Air Zones may interrupt the way we have done business before, there are technological answers out there to meet these new challenges – petrol-electric hybrid drivetrains, electric vehicles and, of course, clean diesels.

That’s right. I used the dreaded ‘d’ word.

While doomsayers might be predicting diesel’s imminent demise, the new generation of clean diesels will continue to be the fuel of choice for high-mileage drivers for a good while to come. While it’s not a panacea, clean Euro 6 diesels are currently exempt from the T Charge and are compliant with the forthcoming Clean Air Zones.

A fact that Mike Hawes, Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) is keen to point out in light of falling diesel sales: “Consumers need urgent reassurance that the latest, low emission diesel cars on sale will not face any bans, charges or other restrictions, anywhere in the UK”.

Of course, investment in new technologies also brings benefits. According to the Royal College of Physicians increased investment in sustainable modes of travel (walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicles) all have the potential to unlock better health and to provide an average social return on investment of approximately £5.50 per £1 spent.

The growing interest in ‘mobility solutions’ proves this fact is not lost on fleet operators. Offering employees practical and sustainable alternatives for travel removes the car as the default method of transport. As a result business travel becomes a simple matter of mobility with employees getting from A to B by utilising the most suitable mode of transport for any given journey – be that bike, public transport, or EV hire. That said, there are many logistical dots to connect before mobility becomes a widespread solution.

One thing is certain however: We need to confront these challenges and take action – as the London Mayor has done – for the benefit of society as a whole.

So I look to the future with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. There are challenging times ahead, but challenge breeds innovation, and that’s never a bad thing.