London has lost air quality control


It has proved a telling couple of years for the growing air pollution disaster faced by city-dwellers worldwide. And in a year that has, according to the UN, been consistently the hottest on record and the third in a row of record-breaking years, it seems that the effects of human emissions have moved from a prediction to a reality.  

It has been over a year since the Volkswagen scandal or ‘dieselgate’ revealed that, contrary to popular belief, diesel cars are the main emitters of toxic nitrous oxides and city inhabitants have begun to suffer the effects.

In the largest study of its kind with data from cities across Europe, long-exposure to air pollution and traffic noise was linked to a greater incidence of high blood pressure. Further scientific papers this year have linked air pollution to an increased risk of mortality from several cancers including those not directly caused by pollution, stroke, kidney disease and dark facial skin spots, in addition to the respiratory and cardiovascular disease links already known.  

Higher air pollution days in Shanghai, China were also shown to decrease the efficiency of workers, reducing their work speed and concentration when compared to lower pollution days. This pioneering study from Tom Chang of the University of Southern California showed the potential for air pollution to affect, not only the individual, but also the economy.  

This year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that 92 percent of the world’s population is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollutants with one in seven children vulnerable to the effects of air pollution worldwide, according to UN children’s charity UNICEF.

“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year,” said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake.

The majority of these tragic and untimely deaths occur in South East Asia where, in November, Delhi saw its residents “cowering by air purifiers” in a bid to protect their children and elderly from soaring levels of the most dangerous particles. To understand the health consequences, scientists were looking back to the fallout from London’s Great Smog of 1952 that is believed to have caused as many as 12,000 premature deaths with the knock-on health effects, such as asthma, still present in London’s population today.  

A cyclist wears a face mask as he travels through the Delhi smog. Photo by Rajat Gupta.

A cyclist wears a face mask as he travels through the Delhi smog. Photo by Rajat Gupta.

It came as welcome news then, for city-dwelling Britons, and in particular Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster residents who have been living in the most polluted areas of London for the past four years, that the government is being forced to address the air pollution problem more actively. This followed a High Court ruling, brought by environmental lawyer group ClientEarth, that claimed the government, up to now, had been doing the minimum possible to avoid fines from the European commission, rather than addressing the issue “as soon as possible”.

Following the court ruling at Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May indicated that the government would respond positively, with new proposals: “We now recognise that Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has to look at the judgement made by the courts and we now have to look again at the proposals we will bring forward. Nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it.”

It has been 17 years since rules were approved to clean up our air, however, ClientEarth CEO James Thornton is adamant that the government has continued to break its own and the EU’s laws to cut financial costs at the expense of our health.

“Health is more important than Treasury bean-counting and ministers should, urgently, put health first,” said Thornton. “We all – children and adults alike – have the right to breathe clean air.”

In their 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised to “make motoring greener and promote cycling, to protect your environment”. To achieve this, the party declared that they were aiming “for almost every car and van to be a zero emission vehicle by 2050”.

The government has since pledged a £35 million package to boost the uptake of ultra-low emission cars with thousands of new electric charge points to be installed across the UK. This funding is part of the £600 million government investment promised to promote ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020.   

The government has also recently announced that ‘Clean Air Zones’ are to be established in five cities; Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020. By encouraging the replacement of old, polluting vehicles with new cleaner models, the government hopes to reduce the health impacts of target areas within the cities that currently suffer air quality problems. Local authorities have also been encouraged to copy the Clean Air Zone initiative in their own jurisdictions.

“We need to tackle air pollution and creating Clean Air Zones will improve the quality of life for people who live and work in our towns and cities, both now and in the future,” said Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey. “Real progress has been made, but there is more to do, which is why we have also committed more than £2 billion to greener transport schemes since 2011.”

According to the Transport Minister John Hayes, “the number of ultra-low emission vehicles on our roads are at record levels and new registrations have risen by 250% in just over 2 years.” But as Central London is still one of the most polluted areas in the UK, clearly there is still a way to go.

The accession of self-confessed “greenest Mayor ever” Sadiq Khan to the title of Mayor of London in May this year, brought the dream of a cleaner, greener London a step closer to a reality. Since he took office, Khan has pushed through an additional £10 tax on older more polluting cars entering the congestion charge zone at any time of day. The ‘T-Charge’ is to come into effect in October 2017.

Following the Clean Air Zone example, In addition to the T-Charge Khan has set in place plans for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London to come into effect by 2019. Khan also hopes to extend the ULEZ to the North and South circulars citing City Hall research that shows that “people living in London’s most deprived communities, often by busy roads, are on average exposed to 25 per cent higher levels of harmful NO2 pollution”.

The immediate effects of traffic restrictions on air pollution were neatly demonstrated in November on one of Europe’s consistently busiest and most polluted streets, Oxford Street. King’s College London  saw the level of toxic NO2 drop by a third when Very Important Pedestrian (VIP) day closed the street for a whole Sunday allowing shoppers to roam the street and enjoy the Christmas lights unhindered by traffic.  

Living Streets, the UK charity for everyday walking says this new evidence demonstrates why Khan’s commitment to enforce a vehicle-free Oxford Street by 2020 is so important and is urging the Mayor, TfL and Westminster Council to take action before Crossrail opens in 2018, bringing an estimated 150,000 more people a day onto London’s most famous  street.

“Putting walking first throughout London’s centre will help create a world-leading city where people have the freedom to breathe fresh air, experience our iconic streets and stay healthy; not just during one-off days, but all year-round,” said Living Streets Chief Executive, Joe Irvin.

However, the government’s decision to back the Heathrow expansion did come as a potential blow for the zero emissions camp, despite claims from the Department of Transport that “modernising the use of our air space will boost the sector and will help to further reduce noise and carbon emissions”.

While the government originally claimed that a new runway at Heathrow could be delivered within the UK’s carbon obligations, various government advisors including chairman of the committee on climate change and former Conservative environment minister, Lord Deben are now adamant that a third runway will lead to even higher levels of toxic air in an area where pollution is already well above legal levels for NO2 emissions. It would also  put undue pressure to lower the emissions of other sectors to honour Britain’s commitment to its own Climate Change Act 2008 and the recently ratified UN treaty, the Paris Agreement on climate change.

United against the new runway, City Hall with TfL has since joined Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor and Maidenhead Councils, and Greenpeace as they prepare for a joint legal challenge to overturn the expansion.

The latest report published by the European Environment Agency states that air pollution is responsible for 50,000 premature deaths in the UK a year and the second highest number of deaths in Europe from nitrogen dioxide pollution. The report also highlights the severe knock-on economic impacts from the loss of human productivity and the agricultural losses caused by air pollution. While air quality policies across Europe have shown that pollution levels can be controlled, we will have to wait and see whether the government is able to protect ourselves and our children from the disastrous effects.

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