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A sustainable future for Birmingham – part 1

Birmingham - the nation’s second city and one that has changed greatly over the last twenty years. One thing that has not changed, however, is that Birmingham is a big polluter.

Continuing growth, both in terms of the population and economy, has left the air quality in such a poor state that Birmingham City Council estimates up to 900 people per year die from diseases associated with air quality[1].

The city’s new Clean Air Zone is of course a good start to tackling this problem, but it will not reduce pollution sufficiently on its own.  Other options are available to the city and its inhabitants, both short and long term, which need to be embraced if we are to improve the quality of air in the city and reduce the levels of carbon dioxide being generated. 

In this three-part article, Birmingham-based construction lawyer, Michael Bennett, considers some of the options available to both Birmingham and the wider UK, starting with personal transport then moving onto mass transit and, finally, energy and other technologies.

Personal transport

The Birmingham of today is very different even from two years ago. Covid-19 has significantly reduced the number of people travelling into the city. Those that do commute are generally encouraged to drive, reducing the risk of virus transmission. However, with vaccines hopefully bringing the pandemic to an end, it seems likely that more people will soon be returning to the office, even if only part time.

An analysis of available data in 2018 revealed that around Birmingham[2]:

  • 62% of commuters drive or are a passenger in a car;
  • 20% take the bus;
  • 10% walk;
  • only 5% use the train.

These figures may be startling to some, especially given how crowded commuter trains often are.  It also leads to the conclusion that, to improve air quality and drive down emissions, commuters must be better incentivised to use public transport, or to use emission-free vehicles.

Emission-free vehicles

In late 2020, the government announced that all new cars sold from 2030 must be able to drive a significant distance with zero emissions (for example plug-in hybrids or full electric). In 2035, that ban will be extended such that only zero emission vehicles will be permitted. This will be an important step in improving air quality and emissions, but it is not without its challenges.

In particular, this ban does not affect cars sold prior to 2030. Given the booming secondary car market, it may well be the late 2030s before we see a significant reduction in petrol and diesel vehicles on the roads. 

There is also the problem of charging points and, at present, the range of most electric vehicles is significantly lower than an equivalent fossil fuel vehicle (though it is noted that Tesla claims a range of over 600 miles for its Roadster[3]). An extensive network of charging points will be required to permit longer journeys.  To assist with this, Birmingham has set out its plan to install 394 rapid charging points across the city by the end of 2022[4]. These charging points will be powered by renewable energy and are intended to support the city’s growing fleet of electric taxis. Arguably however, this does not affect the use of electric cars within the city for commuting. Most return commutes are significantly shorter than the range of even the cheapest electric cars, making commuting ideal for such vehicles. 

There is also a potential longer-term solution for lengthier trips – Dynamic Wireless Power Transfer or, put simply, a road that charges your car. Highways England began testing this technology as long ago as 2015[5] and a new study has recently been commissioned involving Coventry City Council to test the technology[6].   Car manufacturers also appear to be preparing for the technology to be widely used within the next ten years[7]. If DWPT were widely installed, it could allow for electric cars with essentially unlimited range.

An alternative to electric vehicles may be the development of hydrogen fuelled vehicles, offering the benefit of increased range without the need for widespread charging points. However, significant new infrastructure would be required both to produce the fuel and refuel vehicles. 

Electric and hydrogen cars are, however, not a complete solution. Two points still need to be considered:

  • Vehicles within the city, irrespective of whether they are petrol, diesel or electric, still produce brake dust and other non-exhaust particles. In fact, up to 55% of road traffic pollution is made up of non-exhaust particles, with around 20% of that figure coming from brake dust[8]. This may be increased in cities due to the stop/start nature of driving causing higher brake wear. Regenerative braking, used in some electric cars, may reduce this. However, it is not a complete solution as it is dependent on driving style and road conditions[9].
  • Electric vehicles may not themselves produce exhaust particles, but they are only as clean as the method of producing electricity. Put simply, if the electricity is produced by burning gas or coal, the pollution is just moved to the power station.

The obvious way to reduce both of these problems is to reduce the number of vehicles on the streets. This may be due to an increase in working from home, which seems a likely consequence of the pandemic. Alternatively (or possibly in addition), there needs to be a significant increase in the ability to access, and reliability of, mass transportation systems. This process is already underway and, in the next article in this series, we will look at the ongoing progress.

References:

[1] Clean Air Zone – Frequently Asked Questions - Birmingham Labour (birmingham-labour.com)

[2] This is how many people in Birmingham actually travel by train - and it may surprise you - Birmingham Live (birminghammail.co.uk)

[3] Range of Electric Cars - Top 10 Longest Mileage EVs 2021 | EDF (edfenergy.com)

[4] Introduction | Electric vehicles | Birmingham City Council

[5] British Induction: A Highway That Charges Your Electric Car While You Drive | Energy | RESET.org

[6] New UK study to explore feasibility for dynamic wireless charging for commercial transport - Green Car Congress

[7] The road that charges your electric car | Autocar

[8] Air pollution from brake dust may be as harmful as diesel exhaust on immune cells - Air Quality News

[9] 1907101151_20190709_Non_Exhaust_Emissions_typeset_Final.pdf (defra.gov.uk)

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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