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The decision to ban the sale of diesel and petrol cars was always going to grab the headlines.


But the Government is perhaps less keen forpeople to know that this apparently shocking move may not actually achieveanything at all.


For it will only take effect in 2040, bywhich time market forces are likely to have largely completed the transitionfrom fossil fuels to electricity-powered vehicles anyway.


While it could be a sign that Michael Gove,the Environment Secretary, is taking the issue more seriously, the recommitmentto the ban, which was originally announced in 2011, comes after hispredecessors were twice ordered by a judge to come up with a better plan tobring the air we breathe into line with minimum safety standards.


And, earlier this year, the European Unionissued the UK with its “final warning” to comply with air quality laws thathave been breached for seven years.


Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate andenergy policy at environmental group WWF, said the ban might sound good but endup being meaningless.


“The Government’s been failing to complywith this law for seven years and then is setting itself a target so far in thefuture that it will be delivered even if the Government did nothing,” he toldThe Independent.


“The signs are all there in the market thatthis is going to happen anyway.


“The ban is so far away and so unambitious…it’s not sending a big signal to the market and to the car manufacturers.”


That point was echoed by Professor AlastairLewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University.


“Given the rate of improvement in batteryand electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years, by 2040 smallcombustion engines in private cars could well have disappeared without anyGovernment intervention,” he said.


He stressed the economic arguments forimproving the UK’s air quality were “overwhelming”.


“The costs to the economy, through lostproductivity and costs to the NHS are measured in the billions of pounds peryear, and could well increase further with an ageing population,” ProfessorLewis said.


But the ban, which he said was “highlysymbolic”, will not solve the problem entirely.


“Electric vehicles have no direct tailpipeemissions but they are still a source of particulate matter from brake and tyrewear and through agitating road dust,” Professor Lewis said.


“There still remain many other urbansources of pollution not only from transport, but also heating, construction,domestic emissions, and external sources of pollution that drift into citiesfrom outside, most notably from the agricultural sector.  


“Some other urban sources of pollution areeven on an upwards trend, most notably from wood burning stoves.”


Rail unions also condemned the Government’splan in light of the recent scrapping of plans to electrify parts of the railnetwork by Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary.


Mick Cash, RMT’s general secretary, saidthe newly announced ban “exposes the rank hypocrisy of their decision to shelvelong-planned rail electrification works”.


“Puffed up news announcements about plansthat are a generation away will not mask the reality of scrapped modernisationprogrammes on our railways in the here and now,” he said.


Last year, a World Health Organisationreport found 10 towns and cities in the UK, including London, Glasgow, Leeds,Nottingham, Southampton and Oxford, had breached what are regarded as safelevels of tiny particles known as PM10. And 39 urban areas also breached thesafe levels for a smaller measure of particles, known as PM2.5.


ClientEarth, a group of environmentallawyers who twice won court orders forcing the Government to come up with abetter plan to improve air quality, pointed to the years of delay by theGovernment – in the past and the future.


Anna Heslop, a ClienthEarth air qualitylawyer, said: “Successive governments have failed to protect us from illegalair quality.


“We’ve had to return repeatedly to court tochallenge the Government on its weak and incoherent air quality policies andyet, seven years on we are still having to fight to protect people’shealth.  


“The UK Government has been wasting timeand taxpayers money trying to defend the indefensible and failing to take therobust action necessary to deal with what it admits is the largestenvironmental risk to public health in the UK.


“The headline grabbing move to ban dieseland petrol vehicles by 2040 is, while welcome, way too distant to tackle theair quality crisis now.”