Thanks to European judges, the UK government may be taking a closer interest in Boris Johnson’s strategy for cleaning London’s air. A case wonin the European Court of Justice (ECJ) by environmental group Client Earth has increased the legal pressure for Britain’s big cities to bring down the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) spewed in them by diesel engines and inhaled in them by human beings. The capital is a serious NO2 offender. It needs to do more if both the city and the nation are to be brought into line.
At a recent air quality conference organised by London Councils and the City of London Corporation, the seriousness and costs of air pollution in all its forms were laid out with alarming clarity. Dr Gary Fuller of King’s College, who monitors the stuff, said NO2 exceeds EU limits by “factors of between two and three” in some London locations, including far fromcentral hotspots, such as next to Brixton tube station and on Putney High Street.
Those EU limits were set in 1998 and were meant to have been met four years ago. Current forecasts suggest London won’t get there until after 2030 unless serious action is taken. Better progress has been made against particulate matter – smoke, dust, dirt and chemicals substantially caused by motor vehicles – but we’re still far short of what the World Health Organisation wants to see.
What Fuller called the “health burden” is heavy. The mayor agrees, accepting the findings of a report he commissioned which estimated that 4,300 Londoners died prematurely as a result of air pollution in 2008 alone. Bad air in the lungs is linked to bronchitis, asthma, strokes, cancerand, top of the list, heart disease. Dr Iarla Kilbane-Dawe described how particulates (PM) coat the lungs and lodge in the heart and brain. He suggested two quick air pollution remedies: one, switching from diesel to clean fuel (he stressed that petrol qualifies); two, reducing vehicle speeds and weights. “It’s not just soot from exhausts that drives the PM,” he said, “it’s also friction – abrasion of road surfaces.”
Not all London’s air quality problems come from motor vehicles, but the difference made by removing them from streets can be dramatic. Kilbane-Dawe showed an image from a piece of King’s College research illustrating the huge enhancement in air quality in Regent Street on a pre-Christmas day when it was closed to traffic compared with adjoining Oxford Street at the same time.
All this makes Johnson’s air quality approach look weak. Rather than slowing vehicle speeds, he’s sought to increase them. As a gift to motorists, he’s halved the size of the congestion charging zone. His proposed ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) is predicted to take London two thirds of the distance it must travel to meet EU NO2 requirements, but it won’t even start to come into effect until 2020.
At his monthly question time on Wednesday, shortly after the ECJ decision came through, the mayor defended his record. “We’re in the lead, we’re doing lots of stuff, we’re taking huge amounts of flack from drivers to make vehicles cleaner,” he said. He has a case. There are more hybrid buses, albeit fewer so far than originally planned, and old ones have had a greening retrofit. Some steps have been taken to clean up the taxi fleet. Johnson has encouraged cycling, which partly mitigates his generally bad decisions over roads. If the ULEZ is too little, too late, it is more than the national government has achieved, a point that’s been made by none other than the lawyer who conducted Client Earth’s legal challenge.
Johnson has also had some unfair press coverage, a novel experience for a politician most of the media adore. He was right to dismiss as “bollocks” reports that Oxford Street is the most polluted in the world, a story that began with the misrepresentation of some of King’s College’s work. It’s true that London isn’t the world’s worst for air quality. It’s also true that it’s improved. The problem is that it isn’t improving enough or fast enough.
Client Earth’s Euro court win, together with the EU’s own action against the UK, should concentrate reluctant minds a little more. Johnson complained on Wednesday that if London received the lion’s share ofgovernment funds for ultra low emission vehicles “we could spend it far better than any other place in Britain”. He and his pals up river have a clear common interest in tackling London’s air pollution problem speedily. It’s time they got together and put their foot down.