Why we must do more to tackle London’s air pollution crisis

December 2, 2015

In simple terms, London’s air is unhealthy to breathe, and more needs to be done about it. Air pollution is arguably the most significant environmental issue facing London, as well as one of the most significant public health issues. It is consistently identified by Londoners as one of their top environmental concerns, and over two thirds (69 per cent) of Londoners think that the government is not doing enough to tackle it.

In a new report by Policy Exchange and King’s College London, published earlier this week, we outline the moral and legal case for tackling air pollution in London.

Our analysis shows that 328,000 school children attend schools where pollution levels exceed legal and healthy limits for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), making up 25 per cent of all schoolchildren in London. 979 of the 3,161 schools in London are in areas with illegal and unhealthy levels of air pollution. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of air pollution, and exposure to high levels of NO2 has been shown to lower resistance to respiratory infections, as well as aggravating asthma symptoms. Whilst working age adults are generally less susceptible to the effects of air pollution, their exposure can be very high. We have calculated that 3.8 million people (44 per cent of the total workday population) are exposed to illegal and unhealthy levels of NO2 pollution at work.

Research by King’s College London has shown that NO2 and fine particles had an equivalent impact on mortality of up to 9,400 deaths in London in 2010. Put another way, NO2 pollution alone reduces life expectancy by up to 15.5 months on average across the population of London, and the total economic burden associated with poor air quality is valued at up to £3.7bn (2010 data).

There is also an increasingly strong legal case to address air pollution in London and across the UK. European legislation (the Air Quality Framework Directive) sets legal limits for key pollutants based on health guidance. Greater London is one of 38 “zones” across the UK that are currently in breach of NO2 limits. Our report finds that 12.5 per cent of the total area of Greater London has pollution levels above the legal limit, and that the most polluted parts of London (for example Oxford Street and Marylebone Road) have pollution levels nearly four times the legal limit. Even more worryingly, NO2 pollution at roadsides in London appears not to have improved significantly since the early 2000s. This is due to the rapid ‘dieselisation’ of the vehicle fleet which has occurred since the 1990s, with almost 11 million diesel cars now on the road across Britain. Despite the introduction of progressively tighter emissions standards, there has been limited improvement in actual emissions from diesel cars over the last 20 years.

Failure to comply with pollution limits has resulted in two court cases against the UK. In the most recent case, the UK Supreme Court ordered the Government to redraft the national action plan to ensure compliance with legal NO2 limits “as soon as possible”. Failure to comply could result in Europe handing down fines of hundreds of millions of pounds per annum.

Defra recently consulted on a draft plan to improve NO2, but this suggested that it will be at least 2025 before London achieves compliance. However, detailed modelling by Transport for London suggests that on the basis of current and planned policies, London would not be compliant in 2025 – with an area of 42 sq km still over the legal limits for NO2 in 2025. We have looked in detail at the modelling and assumptions which underpin the claimed improvements in air quality, and have identified a number of risks.

Firstly, the models rely heavily on improvements in vehicle emissions, but as we have seen from the recent saga concerning emissions from Volkswagens, diesel cars are simply not performing in line with the standards. A number of studies have shown that real-world emissions from the latest Euro 6 diesel cars are some 2.5 to 7 times the stated emissions limits. Secondly, we have identified a risk associated with the growth of “decentralised energy” across London. Both Central Government and the GLA are promoting decentralised energy generation, and there is now around 200MW of CHP capacity installed in London. Despite the controls in place, there is a risk that this will increase local NOx emissions. Thirdly, there is a risk associated with emissions from construction vehicles and equipment – much of which uses large diesel engines. The GLA has taken steps to regulate these emissions, but there are loopholes in its policies in this area.

Overall it is clear that we cannot rely on current policies to deliver the required improvement in air quality, and significant further action will be required. There are no silver bullets: action will be needed across all of the main sources of pollution in order to make progress. In our next stage of research we will be testing out a range of policy ideas, such as tightening restrictions for all but the lowest emission vehicles in Central London, further investment in the bus and taxi fleet, and measures to reduce emissions from gas boilers and construction vehicles.

The case for further action to address London’s air pollution crisis is clear, and we call on all of the London Mayoral candidates to make this a key priority for London.

This blog originally appeared on BusinessGreen’s website (£)

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