The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has called on Government, local authorities and environmental campaigners to stop “demonising” diesel and to adopt a broad church of technologies to enable commercial vehicles to improve the UK’s air quality.

The society points out that low-emission Euro6 diesel engines are already 95% cleaner than previous generation oil burners and that the strategy now should be to encourage operators to adopt the most advanced new engines because the emergence of alternative fuels, such as electricity, is a painstakingly slow process.

Speaking at the SMMT’s conference in February: ‘Improving Air Quality: the commercial vehicle contribution’, chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Industry shares public concerns about air quality and is responding by investing billions of pounds in advanced diesel commercial vehicles that are 95% cleaner than their predecessors.

However, while modern diesel technology can make a vital contribution to cleaning up the air we all breathe, it cannot do the job on its own.

“The key now is uptake, it’s time to stop demonising diesel and for all stakeholders to engage on this issue.”

Hawes spells out the importance of continuing to focus on cleaner diesel engines by pointing out that 99% of commercial vehicles, including HGVs and buses as well as LCVs, still use the fuel.

“Technical developments suggest solutions are out there in the real world,” he says, but adds that the crucial question is: “How do we get the solutions out of the showrooms onto the road?”

Jenny Randall, the SMMT CV Group chair, makes the point there is no viable alternative to road transport when it comes to meeting the demands of shifting goods. She stresses that “diesel is not the new Devil” and should play a vital role in reducing emissions going forward due to the lack of realistic alternative fuels. With 3.4m LCVs on the UK’s roads, she says it would take an age for gas-powered vehicles or EVs to permeate the market to any comparable extent.

In the meantime she advocates driver training to encourage more economical habits in order to reduce engine idling time and cut down driving speeds.

Ford’s Transit product manager Dave Petts claims more intelligent and widespread use of telematics could save operators thousands of pounds a year through encouraging better driving habits and enabling them to select more economical, and consequently, greener routes.

He says only 15% of businesses running LCVs currently make use of telematics, so there is considerable room for improvement.

The blue oval brand has launched an acceleration control on vans that Petts says can neutralize the driver’s “heavy right foot” when returning to the depot with an empty cargo box following a delivery. The device is available as a £50 option but comes as standard on Econetic models.

Nick Blake, head of engineering at Mercedes-Benz Trucks, suggests natural gas (CNG) is an underused fuel in all commercial vehicles in the UK due to a lack of infrastructure. He says it has a low carbon intensity and is a better option than LPG.

He adds that hydrogen fuel cells may have a future but points out that it is still a prohibitively expensive solution and that if coal fed power stations are required to produce the fuel then the object of improving air quality is defeated.

Blake admits he is not a fan of grant schemes, such as the Plug-in Van Grant, because he believes that when the incentive is withdrawn there is a danger that “the technology will whither on the vine”.

Philip Roe, vice-president Innovation, Strategy and Business Development for logistics firm DHL, also advocates a wider take-up of CNG, which he claims is 40% cleaner than Euro6 diesel technology.

However, he cites telematics-led driver training as a more practical solution to teach “drivers to drive economically and courteously”.

“You can cut emissions by 60% without even changing vehicles,” says Roe.

Elliot Treharne, air quality manager for the Greater London Authority, draws attention to the scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles introduced in France and suggests a similar scheme might work in the UK.

The GLA has already confirmed the launch of an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2020, which will match the parameters of the current Congestion Charge zone but will operate for 24 hours, seven days a week as opposed to the current system that operates from Monday to Friday between the hours of 7am and 6pm.

There will be an £11.50 charge to enter the ULEZ plus an additional charge of £12.50 for pre-Euro6 diesel or pre-Euro5 petrol vans.

Whatever the solutions to improving air quality it could be a long and painful process with casualties along the way – such as businesses using older diesel vans that could see their residual values decimated by tightening restrictions.

But rather than being the problem, diesel could be a major part of the answer – as the SMMT says: “Diesel is not a dirty word.”