The City of London broke its 2017 air pollution limits just five days into the new year, a whole three days ahead of its 2016 record. In response, Greenpeace enlisted the help of Mary Poppins to call on politicians to clean up the UK’s air to protect children’s lungs. A silhouette of the childhood champion was spotted flying high over Parliament, armed with her iconic umbrella and a new accessory — a pollution mask.
Under new EU rules, any single location in the UK is only allowed to breach hourly limits of 200 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air 18 times in a year, but late last week, the limit was broken on Brixton Road in Lambeth for the 19th time. The breach means the UK has already violated 2017’s annual air pollutions limits just five days into the year. Remarkably, Brixton Road had 17 exceedances in just one day last week.
Over 60 percent of the 97 pollution-monitoring sites in London were reported to have broken legal annual limits in 2016, according to data from a Kings College London study. Putney High Street — another known pollution hotspot — was one of the worst offenders, breaching the air pollution limit more than 1,000 times. Unfortunately, more than a spoonful of sugar will be required to tackle the serious air pollution problem the UK faces.
“In London, new rules will mean new taxis and buses from next year have to be hybrid or better, but nothing is happening on diesel cars despite alternatives being readily available. Unbelievably, the government is still incentivizing consumers to buy brand-new diesel cars that are pumping out illegal levels of pollution,” said Paul Morozzo, clean air campaigner for Greenpeace. “If cars coming off the production line had dodgy brakes, you know the government would step in to sort it out. We urgently need to stop the sale of new diesel models until emission testing is truly fit for purpose. Better still, we need car companies to phase out diesel completely and concentrate on hybrid and electric alternatives.”
Air pollution has been a hot topic within the health community for the past few months, with doctors, health professionals and campaigners speaking out about its devastating impact on human health, especially children’s. NO2 pollution causes 5,900 early deaths every year in London, and most air quality zones across the country break legal limits. Last April, MPs referred to the crisis as a public health emergency.
Air pollution can cause asthma in otherwise healthy children, stunts children’s lung growth permanently by up to 10 percent, and is linked to strokes, heart disease and diabetes in older people. Additionally, scientists revealed last week that one in 10 cases of Alzheimer’s in people living near busy roads could be linked to air pollution.
In November, the High Court ruled for the second time in 18 months that the government is not doing enough to combat the air pollution crisis. The judge also told ministers that over-optimistic pollution modelling was being used, based on flawed lab tests of diesel vehicles rather than actual emissions on the road. The government must now look again at proposals to bring pollution levels down to legal levels.
ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews weighed in on last week’s breach, stating that it will now be imperative for London mayor Sadiq Khan to deliver on his promises and for the national government to provide support.
“He has promised to introduce a bigger ultra-low emission zone in 2019 and to deploy the cleanest buses on the most polluted roads. While these are vital steps in the right direction, we can’t wait another three years for action. We need immediate action in the short term to protect Londoners’ heath during these pollution spikes,” Andrews said.
Back in November, the European Environment Agency released an air-quality report that revealed that the UK is second only to Italy in Europe in terms of annual deaths from NO2. London’s Marylebone High Street was also ranked as the most polluted site in Europe.
“While London has the worst air pollution, this is a national problem which requires a national solution,” Andrews asserted. “The government’s draft plans to tackle air pollution, as ordered by the High Court, are due in April. They must include a national network of clean air zones, which stop the dirtiest diesel vehicles entering pollution hotspots. They also have to stop the perverse incentives which encourage people to use diesel vehicles and instead help them buy cleaner ones.”
In December, other major European capitals — including Paris, Madrid and Athens — pledged to ban polluting diesel vehicles from their centers by 2025, and a number of other cities have already begun banning cars on specific days or making public transport free. Similarly bold initiatives will be required of the UK if it intends to seriously tackle this critical issue.