Boris Johnson today pledged to “beat the smog” that continues to smother London even though the Saharan dust cloud has shifted.
The Mayor said he was on a “relentless drive” to beat ongoing traffic pollution and outlined his range of measures including electric buses and an ultra low emissions zone.
But critics accused him of “complacency” over his record and suggested his plans for the new zone in six years’ time would not be enough to tackle the problem.
He angered protesters by suggesting he was a “leading connoisseur” of air quality having cycled around the capital, breathing in fumes, for 15 years.
Mr Johnson was first attacked last week for urging Londoners to “have a little balance” over Saharan dust as he had cycled to work and found the air quality “perfectly fine”.
In his Daily Telegraph column today, he hit back: “You don’t have to tell me that poor air quality is a threat to health. We know that there are 4,300 lives in London alone that are brought to a premature close by this pollution. We know it is intolerable – and we also know that we can beat it.
“We are embarked on an irreversible programme to make London’s air positively superb. Alas, we cannot control the sands of the Sahara.”
The Mayor claimed he had overseen a 20 per cent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions and a 15 per cent fall in PM10s and PM2.5s – a type of dust – over the last six years.
He set out plans last year for the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone which will cover new vehicles registered for use in the centre of town, to improve air quality by 2020.
However, existing vehicles will be exempt and Mr Johnson admitted: “We need to go further and faster, with rapid and compulsory use of the very best new technology.”
Mr Johnson was dismissive of the EU’s record on air pollution – he said emissions standards set by Brussels had not worked and it was therefore “absurd” the EU was threatening to fine the UK £300 million for breaches.
“Never mind Brussels! We can do it on our own – and far better,” he said. “Perhaps the officials of the EU commission could make themselves useful by standing over the [Sahara] desert, and threatening to fine it if it moves.”
Campaigners lined up to attack the Mayor’s record – claiming he has neglected the problem of poor air quality to date and his measures are now too little, too late.
Lib Dem Assembly member Stephen Knight said: “There is a chasm between the Mayor’s rhetoric and his real record over the last six years in tackling air pollution. Never has someone talked so big and acted so little on such an important public health issue.
“The Mayor’s proposed ultra low emission zone will not even start for six years and even then buses and taxis will be exempted from emission requirements applying to other vehicles.”
Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones added: “If the Mayor had followed through on the emergency plans he proposed in 2010 instead of dropping them, then vulnerable Londoners would have been better £300 million for excess NO2, protected during the recent high levels of pollution.
“Emergency calls for breathing problems went up, many asthma sufferers stayed indoors, but Boris Johnson cycled around a bit and said it was fine. His complacency about air pollution is staggering and a real danger to Londoners.
“After six years as Mayor his big idea for action is the ultra-low emission zone which will take another six years to get started. It’s just nowhere near enough.”