London’s air pollution problems seem to growing rapidly in recent years (or perhaps we should say they are returning, depending on how you think of it). Hourly PM2.5 levels now sometimes exceeding those of Beijing, China. Nitrogen dioxide (NOx) levels have been surging well beyond EU legal limits (over a 5 day period in January, NOx levels exceeded the EU’s legal limit for a full year). London was recently put on a “Very High” air pollution alert for the first time.
While that alert was partly the result of a stationary weather pattern, the air pollution that accumulated as a result of that weather pattern originated mostly from within the city itself (diesel vehicles, industry, open fires, etc.).
As it stands, the UK has nearly the highest number of annual deaths from NOx air pollution in the EU (after only Italy), and generalized air pollution is linked to around 23,500 deaths in the UK annually. Notably, the EU has ordered the UK and a number of other members to reduce air pollution levels — without doing so, the countries in question could face fines (though, if the UK exits the EU within the near future, maybe this wouldn’t matter).
So, what is the UK’s government doing to address the air pollution problems? Well, London Mayor Sadiq Khan (who’s been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma, it should be noted) announced last week that, beginning on October 23, central London will institute a £10 charge for vehicles entering the area that don’t meet Euro 4 standards (so, old heavily polluting diesel and petrol vehicles).
The charge — known as the T-charge — will apply during the same 7:00 am to 6:00 pm hours that the current £11.50 congestion tax applies to. The implementation of the new charge will be accompanied by the introduction of an online tool that will allow drivers to easily check if the charge applies to their vehicle.
In addition, the low-emissions zone in central London will be expanded in 2019 — drivers then will begin getting charged to enter the area. There will also be 12 low-emission bus zones created across the city, where only electric or hybrid buses will be allowed to operate.
There are additionally some efforts to increase bicycle use amongst the general population — notably, though, there’s a fair amount of debate about the value of such efforts, with some arguing that bike lanes increase traffic congestion, and thus air pollution.
Other efforts include those of various local authorities in the region. Interestingly, some schools have apparently begun to consider handing out air filter masks to students (the city apparently has 440 schools located in areas where legal air quality limits are exceeded).
The Sydney Morning Herald provides some interesting background on the situation:
“The current problem is, in part, an unintended consequence of previous efforts to aid the environment.
“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average 5 times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”
“No one at the time thought of the consequences of increased nitrogen dioxide emissions from diesel, and the policy of incentivising diesel was so successful that an awful lot of people bought diesel cars,” commented Anna Heslop, a lawyer at ClientEarth, an environmental law firm.
So, the situation is at least partly the result of the age-old story of unintended consequences and hubris, it seems. Though, the possibility is certainly there that at least some of those involved in the push were aware of the inevitable problems, but in a position to benefit financially or politically from the push, so said nothing.
I’ll end things with a quote here from a Ray Hussain (73) interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald while waiting at a bus stop: “The time will come when we’ll start wearing masks like in China.”
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