Timing is a significant improvement, due in part to mayor’s measures, but campaigners say national government must ‘get a grip’ on toxic air
Air pollution in London has reached the legal limit for the whole of 2018 less than a month into the year, prompting calls for the government to “get a grip and show they’re serious about protecting health”.
Toxic air has been at illegal levels in the capital and most urban areas in the UK since 2010 and results in around 40,000 early deaths a year.
The date of this year’s reaching of the limit, at Brixton Road in Lambeth, is actually a significant improvement on previous years: for the last decade air pollution has reached illegal levels no later than six days into the year.
The improvement is partly the result of action taken by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who introduced cleaner buses on routes through pollution blackspots and charges to deter dirty vehicles from central London. “But I have one hand tied behind my back due to government policies and inaction,” he told the Guardian.
Clean air plans put forward by ministers have already twice been declared illegal at the high court for failing to cut air pollution in the “shortest time possible”, as EU law requires. The government is now awaiting the verdict in a third case brought by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, after a hearing earlier in January.
“Londoners are still breathing filthy air on a daily basis,” said Simon Alcock at ClientEarth. “There’s much more to do. But the mayor can’t solve this problem alone. Ministers have to get a grip and show they’re serious about protecting our health by committing to real action to tackle our toxic air.”
Modern air pollution records for London began 18 years ago and Khan said this is the first time London went almost a month before reaching the legal limits: “This shows the measures we have already taken in the capital are beginning to take effect. I am using all the powers I have to their fullest extent to tackle this health crisis. But it’s about time the government recognised the true scale of this issue.”
The law requires that the hourly measurement of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) must not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) more than 18 times in a whole year. But Brixton Road has now recorded 18 breaches and is expected to break the limit in the next day or two.
Over the year, the most polluted places have vastly exceeded this in the past. In 2016 Putney high street broke the hourly limit more than 1,200 times. Khan’s cleaner bus plan is now in place in both Brixton and Putney.
Air quality has also improved on Oxford Street, which broke the annual limit in just five days in 2015. But following changes to bus routes, there have been no breaches so far in 2018. Initial hourly readings are checked and very occasionally recalibration means a result is corrected to a level below the legal limit, but even if this happens Brixton Road is certain to break the annual limit very soon.
The government’s own analysis shows charging zones to deter dirty cars from urban centres are by far the most effective policy, but ministers have told councils they should only be the option of last resort. The government has already spent £370,000 of taxpayers’ money in failed attempts to fight lawsuits aimed at forcing stronger action.
Nitrogen dioxide pollution, mostly produced by diesel vehicles, has been illegally high in most urban parts of Britain since 2010. The government’s latest plan, produced in July, was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors.
Particulate pollution is also a serious health hazard and, while levels are generally under existing legal limits, research released in October showed every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds World Health Organisation guidelines.
Khan is introducing a wide ultra-low emissions zone in London in 2019 and planning to limit the use of wood-burning stoves in future. “The government also urgently needs to set out plans for a vehicle scrappage scheme that removes the filthiest cars off our roads,” he said.
“We need clean air action and that is what the government are delivering,” environment minister Thérèse Coffey told parliament last Thursday: “The government will continue to improve air quality, supported by the new comprehensive clean air strategy that we are developing and will publish later this year. We have already put in place a £3.5bn plan to improve air quality, with a particular focus on transport.” Coffey is meeting EU environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, to discuss the UK’s illegal pollution on Tuesday.
Oliver Hayes, at Friends of the Earth, said: “The frequency and severity of these pollution spikes shows we’ve still got a long way to go in cleaning up our air. It’s high time we reimagined our cities so that people – not cars – come first. Our health, our sense of community, and our wellbeing depend on it.”
In September, the UN’s special rapporteur on pollution said the government was “flouting” its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens and the problem was declared a public health emergency by a cross-party committee of MPs in April 2016.