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Strengthening national vehicle pollution policy and standards

Our research into the costs of air pollution has led to the UK’s Clean Van Commitment and an extension of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone.

A road sign in blue with the text 'Ultra low emission zone' and 'Congestion charging zone' displayed in it.
Our research has led to an extension of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. Photo: Sign for London ultra low emission zone by David Hawgood is licensed with Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The damage of air pollution

The negative effects of air pollution and the damage that is caused to public health are well documented. The effect of this can increase the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. The WHO have also identified 47 towns and cities across the UK that have air pollution levels that exceed WHO guidelines, posing an increased risk to public health.

Dr Alistair Hunt from the Department of Economics has conducted research that quantifies the risks of climate change and air pollution at the local, national and European level, and the costs and benefits of adapting to these risks.

The cost of health

Dr Alistair Hunt’s research responds to the limitations of existing willingness to pay calculations; whereby the maximum amount a customer is willing to pay for a product or service is estimated, in the context of air pollution and adapts them to make them more appropriate.

With colleagues, Dr Hunt has developed and applied two ways of valuing people’s preferences in relation to the risk of premature mortality.

The value of life

The first method measures the value of a statistical life or value of prevented fatality and is centred on people’s willingness to pay to reduce risk of premature death.

The study focussed on the UK, France and Italy, applying to Europe the Krupnick et al. (1997) methodology that had previously been applied to the US, Canada and Japan. The study found that key factors in determining this value were health status and country income, rather than age.

The second method elicits people’s values for avoiding reductions in the length of lifetime and so derives the value of a life year. This second method was applied to France, Spain, UK, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, deriving a value of a life year value for the EU which had not previously been done. Like the previous studies, this research used population-based survey methods to derive these values.

Using the values applied in these studies, Dr Hunt contributed a bottom-up methodology to quantify the cost of the human health impacts of climate change, particularly from heat and flooding. The results and methodology were presented in a 2011 publication, Physical and economic consequences of climate change in Europe.

The impact of conventionally-fuelled cars

In 2018, Dr Hunt and Dr Christian Brand were commissioned by the charity Global Action Plan to conduct research into the health costs associated with pollution from conventionally-fuelled cars. This built on their work on air pollution and used the value of prevented fatality/value of a statistical life and value of a life year measures developed previously.

Adopting the two methodologies drew on the strengths of each and allowed the uncertainty in the two approaches to be made transparent.

The key insights from this research showed for the first time that the health damage associated with diesel vehicle emissions is around 20 times greater than that associated with electric vehicles and at least five times greater than that associated with petrol vehicles.

Annual exposure to the air pollutants of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) is linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Health costs are significantly higher for diesel cars and vans compared to petrol, hybrid or electric vehicles over their 14 and 9-year lifetimes.

Key findings relating to inner city areas such as central London include:

  • average cost to the NHS and society of a car is £7,714
  • health damage cost from each diesel car is £16,424 and each van is £24,555
  • health damage from older diesel vans costs £2.2 billion per year to NHS and society (both central estimates)

The report also highlighted that nearly 90% of the total £6 billion bill to the NHS and wider society caused by emissions is attributable to diesel emissions.

This study illustrated for the first time the individual cost that each car and van has on the NHS and wider society.

Improving air quality

Insights from this research were used in 2018 to inform Global Action Plan’s annual Clean Air Day. The research was disseminated in over 300 online and print news reports. More than forty national radio broadcasts reported on the findings, with Dr Hunt undertaking four interviews with national and local radio stations.

Following on from this media attention, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, announced on 8 June 2018 that the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, originally announced in 2017 and implemented in central London from 8 April 2019, would be extended across a wider area of London from 25 October 2021. The initial zone covered the Congestion Charge area, while the extension encompassed an area bounded by the north and south circular roads.

Most vehicles including cars and vans must meet new, tighter exhaust emission standards or be liable for a daily charge to drive within the covered area. Once implemented, these measures mean that 100,000 residents are no longer living in areas exceeding legal air quality.

This research also led to Global Action Plan, in partnership with utility company Engie and with the backing of the Department for Transport, launching in September 2018 the Clean Van Commitment. This encourages organisations to pledge to replace diesel vans with clean electric alternatives, with clear commitments by the end of 2020 and 2028.

Related groupings

Explore the associated departments and research groupings for this research.

Department of Economics

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We conduct high quality research and teaching in economics. Our graduates have excellent employment prospects due to our established industry placements scheme.

Sustainable Living

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A Research Theme that helps to encourage people and societies to move towards lifestyles that have lower adverse impacts on the environment.