Britain is to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 amid fears that rising levels of nitrogen oxide pose a major risk to public health.
The commitment, which follows a similar pledge in France, is part of the government’s much-anticipated clean air plan, which has been at the heart of a protracted high court legal battle.
The government warned that the move, which will also take in hybrid vehicles, was needed because of the unnecessary and avoidable impact that poor air quality was having on people’s health. Ministers believe it poses the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, costing up to £2.7bn in lost productivity in one recent year.
Ministers have been urged to introduce charges for vehicles to enter a series of “clean air zones” (CAZ). However, the government only wants taxes to be considered as a last resort, fearing a backlash against any move that punishes motorists.
“Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible,” a government spokesman said.
“That is why we are providing councils with new funding to accelerate development of local plans, as part of an ambitious £3bn programme to clean up dirty air around our roads.”
The final plan, which was due by the end of July, comes after a draft report that environmental lawyers described as “much weaker than hoped for”.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, will be hoping for a better reception when he publishes the final document on Wednesday following months of legal wrangling.
A briefing on parts of the plan, seen by the Guardian, repeats the heavy focus on the steps that can be taken to help councils improve air quality in specific areas where emissions have breached EU thresholds.
Measures to be urgently brought in by local authorities that have repeatedly breached EU rules include retrofitting buses and other public transport, changing road layouts and altering features such as roundabouts and speed humps.
Reprogramming traffic lights will also be included in local plans, with councils being given £255m to accelerate their efforts. Local emissions hotspots will be required to layout their plans by March 2018 and finalise them by the end of the year. A targeted scrappage scheme is also expected to be included.
Some want the countrywide initiative to follow in the footsteps of London, which is introducing a £10 toxic “T-charge” that will be levied on up to 10,000 of the oldest, most polluting vehicles every weekday.
Sources insisted that while the idea of charges were on the table, there was no plan to force councils to introduce them, and that other measures would be exhausted first.
They hope the centrepiece of Wednesday’s strategywill be the plan to ban diesel and petrol sales completely by 2040, in line with Emmanuel Macron’s efforts across the Channel.
The French president took the steps to help his country meet its targets under the Paris climate accord, in an announcement that came a day after Volvo said it would only make fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019 onwards.