A little over five years ago, my daughter was born in central London, in an area where the nearest air quality monitoring station recorded particulates as having reached dangerous levels 55 times that year. When 35 bad days are exceeded, the UK falls foul of European air rules, which means it faces court cases and fines until the problem is rectified.
This was serious. The EU environment commissioner at that time, Janez Potočnik, threatened up to £300 million in fines if action wasn’t taken. But action was taken, or seemed to be: Boris Johnson published his air pollution strategy, four days after my daughter’s birth. This strategy, set to be implemented within two years, would have involved refusing to relicense fifteen year old taxis, and mandatory eco driving training for black cab drivers. The mayor wanted a transport system to “match up to the highest environmental standards that a great city like ours deserves”.
Defra looked at the mayor’s plan and gave the thumbs up, with a spokesperson saying they were “confident that PM10 limits will be met in London by the 2011 deadline and the government has submitted evidence to the European commission to demonstrate this.”
Europe listened to the strategies set out, and put infringement proceedings on hold, based on the assurance that the new plan would see the UK compliant by summer 2011. Rules broken, action taken, problem solved?
No. The next year, central London exceeded the particulates limit 47 times, and it has been breaking European air laws ever since. National government has now promised action to ensure London has dealt with the problem within a decade, just as it promised action before. But which other issue involves such a serious legal infringement – one which, as a recent report by King’s College London has found, kills nine and a half thousand people in the city each year – without being dealt with?
Failure to tackle this is probably the greatest failure of Boris Johnson’s time as mayor, so how did it happen?
Why it hasn’t been addressed
Part of the problem has to be its invisibility. Clear, tasteless and odourless, the particulate and nitrogen dioxide that has been filling my daughter’s lungs all her life is not as obvious to me as the London smog would have been to her great great uncle, who came to London from Manchester to play for Arsenal in the 1950s. This has meant that great campaigners like Client Earth and Simon Birkett, as well as academics, have had to work hard to inform Londoners about what’s happening to them.
I certainly didn’t think too hard about what air pollution meant for my family, until recently, when studying the figures brought me down to earth with a bump. The King’s research shows not just the impact of particulates but also the huge damage done by nitrogen dioxide to public health, far more damaging than previously thought. Given this, it’s no surprise how much ground air pollution has become an issue since the last mayoral election.
Part of the problem has also been the lack of political control. Boris has blamed low vehicle quality standards at a European level. A definite argument, incidentally, for why Europe matters for London: to improve standards and crack down on the kind of cheating that tripped up Volkswagen.
Another problem has been the lack of a national approach. Defra has not produced a comprehensive air quality strategy since 2007, and this vastly under-resourced department has since been successfully taken to court for its inadequate plans to date.
No excuses any more
But, given all that, there is no doubt that, ultimately, there was a lack of political will from the current mayor to deal with the situation. A lack of political will to face up to the fact that a mistake had been made in letting so many diesel vehicles into the capital. It has led to a terrible failure to both take on the vested interests of those who have invested in polluting vehicles and to set the mayor’s own house in order, allowing his iconic routemaster to carry on polluting. We have the battery technology to fix the issue, but not a mayor with the will to do so.
For the next mayor of London, there is no longer an excuse to shilly-shally at the price of people’s lives. The UK’s leading environmental organisations have jointly proposed a set of ideas, including how the next mayor can clean up London’s transport. They call for clean buses in central London by 2018, spreading to all buses across Greater London by 2025; phasing out diesel fuelled taxis and private hire vehicles by 2020; a ban on diesel vehicles at peak times; and an expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone within the bounds of the North and South Circular Roads. It also proposes a Clean Lungs Fund to tackle air pollution around the most at-risk schools, and for a big push on the walking and cycling infrastructure to make a healthier approach to transport more viable for Londoners. Whoever the next mayor will be – they now have the full understanding of the problem, the political space to be ambitious and the technology to solve it – it’s time for them to banish the invisible killer.
Greener London is published today, endorsed by the Campaign for Better Transport, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Green Alliance, Greenpeace, National Trust, RSPB, London Wildlife Trust and WWF.