Air pollution: How many more must die before politicians act?

London Green MEP candidate Amelia Womack asks: how many more people have to die before we see serious action to tackle London’s air pollution?

The word “smog” conjures thoughts of a Dickensian London of blackened buildings and thick air – but last weeks smog warnings remind us that the air pollution we thought had been relegated to the annals of history is still with us.

Time and again Mayor Boris Johnson has been called to act on air pollution and although he has now pledged to “beat the smog”, his reactive statement only serves to highlight his eight years of complacency on the issue. The Mayor’s complacency has not only caused a 34% increase in the NHS treating people with breathing difficulties but follows a consistent pattern of reactive rather than proactive legislation on toxic air.

In 1952, “The Great Smog” closed in around London. In just two days it managed to claim the lives of over 12,000 people. This impact on the population of London of poor air quality could no longer be ignored and the government felt compelled to legislate. The result was the Clean Air Act of 1956 which sought to reduce the volumes of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Though the government had acted, it was not enough to save the lives of the 12,000 claimed by the respiratory problems caused by the “Great Pea Souper”. Sadly, it is this retrospective strategy towards air pollution that has characterised our politician’s approach to London’s air pollution ever since. We’re still waiting for the holistic, wholehearted effort to clean-up the capital’s air that Londoners desperately need. 

Legislation has not been enacted to protect the residents of London against pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrous oxide – which are still occurring at levels above the EU’s legal limits and costing over £20 million per year in social damage. Sadly every warm day that Londoners enjoy brings with it more smog warnings, sore throats, runny noses and poor visibility. That’s the price we continue to pay for a Mayor that refuses to act on air pollution. 

Air pollution doesn’t just result in these (relatively) mild irritations. The levels of air pollution experienced in London has been linked to cardiovascular problems, respiratory disease, brain disease and cancer. The worst affected are the elderly and young children, especially those with already present respiratory problems. With schools lining the busy streets of London, their exposure to harmful air pollutants has meant that around 15-30% of all new cases of asthma can be attributed to air pollution. Overall, it is estimated that over 4000 lives are lost prematurely each year in London due to air pollution.

Current air pollution strategies in London are simply not fit for purpose. Despite the carcinogenic emissions in diesel, there are still over 8,500 diesel buses and 20,000 diesel taxis on London’s roads. The UK is not even honouring the commitments it has already undertaken: though officially compelled to comply with the EU directive on air quality, the government has simply stated that it will not be possible to reach the agreed benchmarks within the foreseen timeframe. The Commission has even launched court proceedings against Britain as a result of 15 years of failure to reduce Nitrogen Oxide levels across the country.

Sadly, Boris Johnson’s approach to this can best be summed up as an “air pollution, what air pollution?” attitude, followed by sweeping statements that don’t have a clear path of action. In comparison, Jean Lambert, London’s Green MEP since 2009, is calling for strong actions that will ensure that Londoners can breathe safely in the capital. The Greens targets to achieve this are: to create a very low emission zone such as the one in Berlin; clean up the buses ensuring that all vehicles are hybrid, hydrogen or electric; develop a new taxi strategy to reduce emissions from taxis; safer cycling routes to encourage people out of their cars; and a 20mph speed limit to cut emission through developing smooth flowing traffic. These goals can not be achieved overnight, and with Johnson rejecting these plans when they were presented at City Hall just last month, it looks like we’re going to see more delays in these changes that will fundamentally save lives.  Even as smog enveloped London in recent weeks he refused even to issue a public health warning – further endangering the lives of Londoners. How many more people will die as a result of air pollution before robust laws to protect the population are introduced?


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