The Government has confirmed plans to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars in the UK from 2040.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove says the move is part of a plan to get these vehicles off roads altogether by 2050 – with cleaner electric or hybrid cars taking their place.
From 2020, new pollution taxes will also be levied on diesel drivers who use congested highways – specifically targeting busy roads in major towns and cities, as well as motorways such as the M4 and M32.
The Government is going to make £200m available to local authorities so they can restrict diesel car use on polluted roads, with councils told they may be able to implement outright bans in town centres.
Mr Gove told the BBC that diesel scrappage schemes are not the Government’s preferred option, but councils may be allowed to use such an initiative if it is sufficient value for money.
The Government has identified 81 major roads in 17 towns and cities where it says urgent action is required because they are in breach of EU emissions standards, putting people’s health at risk.
The new strategy urges local authorities to attempt to reduce emissions at first by fitting the most polluting diesel vehicles with filters, changing road layouts and removing speed humps.
Tough levies on the most polluting diesel vehicles could be imposed as soon as 2020 as a last resort to help bring down the levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions.
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A Government spokesman said: “Our plan to deal with dirty diesels will help councils clean up emissions hotspots – often a single road – through common sense measures which do not unfairly penalise ordinary working people.
“Diesel drivers are not to blame and to help them switch to cleaner vehicles the government will consult on a targeted scrappage scheme – one of a number of measures to support motorists affected by local plans.”
The strategy will disappoint motoring groups pressing for a diesel scrappage scheme, under which diesel drivers would receive compensation for trading in their polluting vehicles.
Instead the Government will hold a consultation on a “possible” scrappage scheme in the autumn, which sources have suggested is likely to be “very, very targeted”.
Greenpeace has said the 2040 deadline to ban petrol and diesel cars is far too late, as it will mean waiting almost 25 years before action is taken to “tackle the public health emergency caused by air pollution”.
The campaign group pointed out that Germany, India, the Netherlands and Norway are considering similar bans by 2030.
Spokeswoman Areeba Hamid said: “While this plan makes the right headline-grabbing noises, in reality it means that children across the UK will continue to be exposed to harmful air pollution for years to come.
“The government cannot shy away any longer from the issue of diesel cars clogging up and polluting our cities, and must now provide real solutions, not just gimmicks.”
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The Government is concerned that motorists were encouraged to buy diesel vehicles under Labour more than a decade ago because of concerns at the time over carbon emissions.
Instead of pollution taxes, councils will be urged to improve the flow of traffic with measures such as removing speed humps to prevent cars repeatedly slowing down and speeding up, which almost doubles the amount of harmful gases they pump out.
Other options expected to be put forward include better sequencing of traffic lights to ensure drivers keep arriving at green lights rather than red ones if they drive within the speed limit.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has warned the UK’s automotive sector could be undermined if companies and consumers are not given sufficient time to adjust to cleaner cars.
Chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Much depends on the cost of these new technologies and how willing consumers are to adopt battery, plug in hybrid and hydrogen cars.
“Currently demand for alternatively fuelled vehicles is growing but still at a very low level as consumers have concerns over affordability, range and charging points.”