Air pollution is linked to the early deaths of over 4,000 Londoners a year. It’s time to get serious about traffic reduction

I have spent more than a decade being told that air pollution is getting better and everything will be okay. Now, the scientists are about to tell everyone who will listen, that it just isn’t true.

Jenny Jones AM is leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly and Green Party Mayoral candidate for 2012

I have spent more than a decade being told that air pollution is getting better and everything will be okay. Now, the scientists are about to tell everyone who will listen, that it just isn’t true.

During my time at City Hall I have learnt that air pollution is linked to the early deaths of over 4,000 Londoners a year; that heart attacks increase during air pollution episodes; that exposure as a child can lead to long term problems as adults with under-developed lungs and a huge increase in cases of asthma and other respiratory problems.

Air pollution is a public health disaster on an industrial scale, but it is played down by government ministers and many health professionals on the basis that it is being sorted out. Well, a draft report from Kings College in London indicates that Plan A for reducing nitrogen oxides has failed and I am painfully aware that neither the London Mayor nor the Government, have an immediate Plan B.

The government probably commissioned the King’s research to back their argument that the EU is to blame for the failure of air pollution to improve. The draft findings support the conclusion that Euro standards have broadly failed to bring about the improvements expected from diesel cars in emissions of NOX and NO2. The number of diesel vehicles has grown rapidly in London and now makes up nearly a quarter of all the cars on our roads. These low CC vehicles have been good for climate change as they emit less CO2, but bad for air pollution.

Serious health risks

Recent research has shown that over 90 per cent of London’s NO2 came from the combustion of the diesel and the World Health Organisation have concluded that diesel fumes were definitely a cause of cancer. I questioned Boris Johnson last September about removing exemptions from the congestion charge from vehicles that benefited the climate, but which caused considerable localised pollution.

He reviewed his Greener Vehicle Discount scheme and this week announced that he would introduce an Ultra Low Emission Discount to be introduced on 1 July 2013, which according to TfL, only vehicles that are either pure electric or emit 75 grams of CO2 (g/km) or less and meet the Euro emission standard for air quality will quality for the discount. London is only going to promote vehicles that reduce both the climate change and air pollution emissions.

We will have to see what impact the changes to the congestion charge will have on the vehicles people purchase, but it has strengthened the case for including an air quality element into the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). In July 2010 sales of new diesel vehicles outstripped petrol cars for the first time in the UK, with London figures showing a rise from 6.9 per cent of the vehicle fleet in 2000 to 21.7 per cent in 2011. The VED based on emissions of CO2 effectively encouraged the purchase of diesel cars as they tended to have lower levels than petrol equivalents, as did the previous congestion charge Greener Vehicle Discount scheme.

Why have Euro standards failed to bring about the improvements expected from diesel cars in emissions of NOx and NO2? The finger of blame is pointed at car manufacturers manipulating the test to how thirsty and dirty their cars are and ineffective enforcement process. For example, a study which compared real world and official CO2 tests data showed, year by year, the disparity grew between the two from a 7 per cent spread in 2001 to 23 per cent in 2011.

Higher standards are needed

The mayor and government must press the EU for urgent robust vehicle approval processes and testing standard that reflect urban driving conditions, as opposed to those derived from laboratory conditions or based on drive cycles. At the same time resisting car manufacturers powerful lobbying to water down effective processes and delays.

The government’s and Boris Johnson’s record on NO2 would be dismal if it completely relied upon the techno fixes which they have advocated as their key policies. However the rise in polluting diesel vehicles has been cancelled out partly by the 10 per cent decline in overall traffic.

The European Union set legally binding standards on Nitrogen Dioxide a pollutant considered to be harmful to human health and the environment, with strong links to respiratory conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease, the degradation of sensitive habitats and deterioration of biodiversity. The EU limit value for annual mean NO2 has been in place since 1999, with the UK missing its first compliance date in 2010, then not applying for a deadline to 2015.

This complacency made worse by the government’s admission that London is unlikely to comply until 2025.

It should be pointed out that the problem of particulates has declined, although the change has been slow and it still has a terrible impact on health in areas like inner London. The technical fix has made a difference, but the Kings report highlights some hard choices which need to be made about older taxis and tightening up the enforcement of the Low Emission Zone.

The government and Boris Johnson needs a complete root and branch rethink on air quality. Building new roads that encourage more cars is a silly idea and spending £43m on planning and promoting a road river crossings whilst traffic has fallen by 10 per cent is simply ridiculous.

Any future policies and spending must be based on robust evidence, and proper enforcement, not on assumptions or car manufacturer interests. It must also urgently examine and address the drift to dieselisation and get serious about traffic reduction.

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