A quick win for ministers on air pollution? Cleaner delivery trucks
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has sent out the right signals by announcing a ban on new diesel cars and vans from 2040, with the Scottish government aiming to do likewise by 2032. Despite these appropriate steps, an often-overlooked area- but with a significant and disproportionate negative impact- is transport refrigeration.
We have all seen the refrigerated delivery trucks that transport food and drink from farms and factories to our local supermarkets and restaurants. Many of these use not one, but two, diesel engines- the main engine at the front propelling the truck and the secondary engine keeping the back compartment cold. With extremely weak regulation on the secondary engine, it is allowed to be disproportionately polluting.
In fact, the secondary engine emits six times as much nitrogen oxide (NOx) as the main engine and 29 times as much particulate matter (PM). Drivers of diesel cars and vans will soon be looking to switch to electric or hybrid alternatives- but they will rightly wonder why heavily polluting secondary engines are still allowed on Britain’s roads.
The Dearman engine
To demonstrate the extent of their impact on air pollution, if Britain’s 84,000 transport refrigeration units (TRUs) became zero emission, it would be the particulate matter equivalent of taking 3.8 millionEuro 6 diesel cars off our roads.
Tackling this would be a quick win for government- but how?
Simply put, these secondary engines are also allowed to use red diesel, on which government charges much less fuel duty compared to standard white diesel. This reduced level of tax also means the Treasury foregoes £126 million of revenue. A number of zero emission TRUs are affordably available on the market, but the availability of cheap red diesel disincentivises their take-up.
Ministers are beginning to realise the scale of the problem here and Chancellor Philip Hammond rightly launched a consultation earlier this year on red diesel use in urban areas. He must now go all the way and use his Autumn Budget statement to announce an end to red diesel use in transport refrigeration. Clawing back tax revenue, encouraging a shift to affordable clean alternatives, and making a quick impact all make this a strong and positive measure for him to pursue.
David Sanders is the Commercial Director of Dearman Engine Company
On the 6th September the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution held its Annual General Meeting to re-elect the chair and officers following last summer’s election. The meeting saw the re-election of the Chair Matthew Pennycook MP, as well as the officers. The APPG welcomes its newest officer, John McNally MP of the Scottish National Party.
The secretariat also updated attendees about the upcoming programme of events.
The current officers of the APPG on Air Pollution area as follows:
Over four fifths of UK adults think it is important to tackle air pollution in the UK. The UK’s first ever National Clean Air Day has since demonstrated the huge level of public willingness to take personal action to reduce air pollution and protect their health. And people are also prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Two thirds of people polled would be happy to pay for a ring-fenced fund to tackle air pollution, equivalent to £1 billion a year. People are now asking their leaders for the infrastructure and policy environment to support them and enable us all to breathe clean air.
The success of National Clean Air Day on June 15th 2017 demonstrates the public appetite for action on tackling air pollution. 28 thousand tweets, 550 media articles and over 200 grassroots events helped raise public awareness about the health impacts of air pollution and how to reduce and avoid air pollution. For the first time-ever, health-professional backed advice reached over 46 million people in the UK through the media, social media and public engagement events. The level of public interest in clean air peaked when #NationalCleanAirDay trended at number one on Twitter for five hours, showing that air pollution was more popular than Beer Day and Love Island.
June 15th 2017 started with school children across the country walking and cycling to school, instead of being driven: Levels of lateness at a primary school in Nottingham were markedly down on National Clean Air Day, as children set their alarms extra early to make sure they could walk to school in time for a celebratory cup of squash and to receive a certificate; children at St John’s School in Southampton celebrated cleaner air by cycling and playing in the street that had been closed outside their school.
As the day progressed, workplaces encouraged staff to leave the car at home and walk or cycle: Colmore Business District in Birmingham asked its 30,000 employees to make a pledge to support clean air and consider how packages are delivered; a lunchtime event to inspire businesses and professionals across Manchester attracted speakers from City of Trees, Transport for Greater Manchester and the British Lung Foundation.
Residents in Nottingham and Derby learnt about what they could do to protect their health from air pollution through public engagement events in the Intu shopping centres, while grass-covered furniture and cars full of flowers helped stop shoppers and workers in Leeds who then pledged to take action to reduce air pollution. These and hundreds more events took place in the Clean Air Zone cities and across England.
National Clean Air Day also triggered city mayors, council leaders and councillors from across the parties to get involved and pledge their support for cleaner air.
The seventy groups supporting National Clean Air Day – including Public Health England, the British Lung Foundation and King’s College London – have helped people across the country to understand why and how they can reduce air pollution and protect their health. From teachers to taxi drivers and nurses to builders, people are concerned and want action to cut air pollution. In polling, just under nine in ten people thought that new vehicle standards to reduce pollution from diesel cars should be brought in before 2020. In focus groups, taxi drivers told us how they feel the group most exposed to air pollution as they sit in toxic cabs with pollution pumping in from the cars in front. People know their health is being compromised and are primed to take action on air pollution. They are now ready to discuss with policy and decision makers how to improve the air quality in their local areas. The public want clean air.
A full report about National Clean Air Day will be published in September 2017.
It is widely known that there is a link between air pollution and respiratory conditions but the impact that air pollution has on cardiovascular health is perhaps not so well known. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2012, that some 72% of outdoor, air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes. Despite this, polling shows that while nine in ten (89%) people know that air pollution can worsen asthma, less than two in ten (17%) are aware that it can also increase their risk of stroke.
Both long and short term exposure to air pollution can make existing heart conditions such as heart failure or angina worse and can cause heart attacks and strokes amongst people with existing cardiovascular disease. The link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease is particularly strong for particulate matter with a diameter under 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), which is derived from diesel vehicle exhausts. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) funded researchers at the University of Edinburgh who discovered that these tiny particles produce free radicals that can injure blood vessels and lead to disease. The particles prevent blood vessels from relaxing and contracting properly and this disturbance to blood vessel function means there is increased risk of clots developing in coronary arteries, which can cause a heart attack.
Short‐term exposure to high levels of particulate matter has been linked with an increase in the risk of heart attacks within a few hours to one day after exposure.
In 2014, the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE) found that long term exposure to PM2.5 is strongly linked to heart attacks and angina. This study also highlighted that the risk of heart attack and angina increased at levels of PM2.5 exposure below current EU limit thresholds.
There are thought to be a number of ways that air pollution can contribute to cardiovascular disease. Inhaling harmful pollutants could cause inflammation, which may cause the arteries to narrow. These pollutants might also make the blood more likely to clot (which could cause a heart attack in someone who already has coronary heart disease), alter the function of the nervous system causing abnormal heart rhythms or increase blood pressure. The BHF is funding research in this area in order to better understand exactly how air pollution affects the heart and the blood vessels.
The impacts of air pollution are felt most strongly by individuals with existing heart conditions. For this reason it is advised that people with cardiovascular conditions might avoid spending long periods of time in places where there is high levels of air pollution. However this places an unfair burden upon already vulnerable people and it is very difficult for such people to limit their exposure by themselves. That is why the government and local authorities must take steps to improve air quality throughout the UK.
Kylie Barclay is Policy & Public Affairs Officer at the British Heart Foundation
This event was the first official APPG event of 2017 and aimed to explain the challenges that air pollution represents before later events in the year begin to develop ideas about how to tackle the problem.
Matthew Pennycook MP, the group’s chair, began the meeting by welcoming the audience and introducing the speakers.
Professor Anthony Frew, a respiratory consultant doctor working in Sussex opened remarks from the speakers. He said that there were a number of confusing claims about the impact of air pollution and would use his time to try to clarify some of the statistics. Importantly, he said that although he would be challenging the numbers, it was clear that air pollution is harmful – only the extent of the harm is what he was keen to question.
Professor Frew noted that the 1993 American ‘six cities study’ was the first to show incrementally higher death rates in cities associated with air pollution. In the UK, COMEAP (the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution) is the body that provides advice to government bodies on the impacts of air pollution. COMEAP’s estimate that 340,000 ‘life years’ are lost in the UK every year are based on decent evidence, but the way that information is presented to the public is problematic, Professor Frew said. The 340,000 life years figure is difficult for the public to understand, so COMEAP reinterpreted it and presented the research as linking air pollution to 40,000 deaths per year.
However, Professor Frew went on to say that the 40,000 deaths per year figure was misleading because it gave no indication of the age of the people dying, their existing health conditions and said that no one would ever have ‘air pollution’ on their death certificate. For these reasons, the focus should be on the impact of air pollution on morbidity instead of mortality.
Furthermore, Professor Frew spoke briefly about nitrogen oxides which are often claimed to be as damaging as particulate matter. He said that, so far, evidence on the health impacts of NOx is inconclusive but that about 10,000 of the 40,000 COMEAP deaths are identified as a result of NOx exposure.
It is important to remember that air pollution is not nearly as damaging as smoking and that the quality of the air in, for example, the city centres of the 1970s was significantly worse. Professor Frew closed by saying that exaggerated claims about the impacts of air pollution are damaging.
Dr Penny Woods, the Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation then began her part of the session by promising to provide a more human perspective on these issues. She agreed that we do not yet know how NOx effects our health and conceded that the evidence on air pollution is always improving but, despite the uncertainty, we are sure that air pollution is bad for us.
Dr Woods said that the WHO labelled diesel as carcinogenic in 2013 and that COPD and asthma attacks can be brought on and conditions worsened by air pollution. She said that this resulted in around a 25% difference in lung capacity, as shown in one Californian study. Indeed, the impacts of air pollution tend to hit the most vulnerable hardest, with those on lower incomes more likely to live in high pollution hotspots and to have an existing respiratory condition.
Moreover, she made clear that airborne pollution harms children more because their stature puts them in close proximity to street exhausts, typically breath more rapidly and their lungs are more sensitive. Importantly, respiratory diseases are only one part of the problem – cardiovascular conditions such as stroke and dementia can also be impacts by poor air quality. This evidence, when taken together, should make us consider air pollution the modern era’s asbestos/smoking equivalent.
Agreeing with Professor Frew, Dr Woods said that morbidity associated with air pollution should be more regularly examined. She said that air pollution can impact the life chances of children and that high pollution episodes can lead to COPD and asthma sufferers feeling afraid to go outside. These challenges present in the context of the highest ever recorded A&E attendance for respiratory issues in years.
Dr Woods closed by suggesting that the government consider a range of policies to mitigate the risks of air pollution. She suggested a three-part programme to set up a national framework to clean up our air. The first was an ambitious implementation of Clean Air Zones in cities across the UK, following by new legislation to deal with the problem in the form of a new Clean Air Act, all underpinned by a recognition that the protection of those vulnerable to air pollution must be prioritised.
The last of the speakers, Mike Holland, an independent consultant focusing on the economic assessment of environmental ills, opened by giving the history of the UK’s approach to air pollution, commenting that the original concern was acid rain. Following further research on health impacts of air pollution, the focus shifted from acid rain in the 1980s. By the time of the 1993 six cities study, as mentioned by Professor Frew, it was clear that health impacts build up over time in conditions exposed to air pollution.
The latest figures show that air pollution can increase infant mortality several percent and costs the UK economy £20bn, a figure which takes into account lost utility, productivity, NHS costs and early deaths. Mr Holland also stood by the 40,000 deaths figure from COMEAP, which is a lower figure that Defra originally estimated. Importantly, the COMEAP figure ignores VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and ozone so the figure could be higher still. The UK’s estimations are low compared to European and OECD studies and we are behind in analysing morbidity and lost productivity as a result of air pollution related illnesses.
In conclusion, Mr Holland said that a closer understanding of the interaction between climate policy and attempts to mitigate air pollution would be beneficial.
An extended Q&A session then began with MPs asking several questions of the panel. These focused on:
What councils could do to alleviate local air pollution;
How parliamentarians could help to bring the issue to the attention of the public without unduly frightening parents and sufferers of respiratory conditions;
The discrepancy in price between NOx and PM monitors and the use of these devices.
The panel responded that we need much more investment in active transport, that planning systems need to discourage rapid acceleration and braking (meaning consistent 20mph zones are preferable to speed bumps). The panel was conflicted about how to inform the public with some speakers standing by the 40,000 and others advising MPs not to deploy it.
Key messages from the panel during the stakeholder Q&A included:
Poorer people tend to be more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution because historically, cheaper housing was downwind from factories, they have less access to green spaces, they tend to drive older vehicles and to smoke;
The evidence for air pollution actually causing asthma is weak but there is strong evidence that it does exasperate the condition once it is contracted;
There was some speculation about how effective central and local policy has been to tackle air pollution as many areas remain over the limit values.
The event closed with Matthew Pennycook looking forward to the group’s activities in the year ahead. He said that the group was planning a workshop on the expected Clean Air Zone consultation in April/May and that a meeting focused on technology options to alleviate air pollution could be expected later in the year. He also alluded to plans that the APPG is forming to contribute towards National Clean Air Day in June.
Mr Pennycook thanked those present for coming and closed the meeting.
Tomorrow is a big day in Parliament. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is due to give his spring budget. The budget is an opportunity for the government to announce the changes it is making to taxation and government spending. As is customary, the hour-or-so long speech the Chancellor makes will focus on the high-level policy levers that are being pulled to stimulate growth in the economy and balance public spending with income.
Almost as soon as the Chancellor’s speech ends and he sits down, however, the Treasury will release a long document that gives information on that place the Devil so regularly lives in – the Detail. It is here that we may expect to see more precise policy instruments and tax tweaks, and, perhaps, some of these will impact the sources of air pollution.
The associate members of the APPG on Air Pollution have advised the secretariat what they think would be included in a budget that would make an important step towards improving the UK’s air quality. Here’s what we’re hoping the Chancellor will announce:
Fuel taxation 1. Remove the fuel duty escalator on LPG – LPG canplay a useful role as a transition fuel enabling immediate reduction in vehicle pollution in advance of longer term switches to zero emission vehicles. For example, converting diesel taxis to run on LPG delivers a reduction in NOx of 80%, PM of 99% and CO2 of 7% meeting Euro 6 standards under real world testing and LPG can deliver NOx savings compared to Euro 6 diesel cars. On NOx, LPG is consistently lower than Euro 6 diesel cars. he duty escalator on LPG was introduced in 2003 via the Alternative Fuels Framework (AFF). The AFF provides the basis of the government’s approach to fuel taxation and it is this framework that labels LPG as more environmentally harmful than other alternative fuels. However the AFF is now 13 years old and does not take account current industry data, developments in technology and use of different fuels across different vehicle types. Ending the LPG escalator would result in limited lost revenue to the exchequer while promoting the use of LPG and sending a signal to vehicle manufacturers to aid the supply of forecourt ready LPG models.
Vehicle taxation 2. Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – VED should factor in NOx and PM emissions when calculating VED bands. In addition no VED should be levied on Ultra Low Emission Vehicles for the first year.
3. Company car taxation – There should be a comprehensive review of the company car tax regime in order to incentivise the cleanest vehicles. If new diesel cars are to benefit from such an approach, the manufacturers must prove the emissions performance of vehicles under real world conditions.
Other issues 4. Scrappage scheme – There is merit in revisiting the vehicle scrappage concept as a means to accelerate the replacement of polluting vehicles and improve air quality. A scrappage scheme would have a financial cost, but this could be offset by changes to VED and company car tax structures, as well as from the reduced burden on the NHS resulting from improved health outcomes. To maximise the benefit in air quality terms, the scrappage scheme should target the replacement of older, pre-Euro 6c diesel cars and pre-Euro 3 petrol cars. The scheme should be targeted towards the purchase of vehicles with low NOx, PM and CO2 emissions. Consideration would be needed in terms of how the scrappage grants would interact with the existing grants available for electric vehicles (described below).
5. Local authority funding – DEFRA air pollution monitoring guidance should be amended to specify schools as priority sites for monitoring. In order to do this, it is essential that local authorities are properly resourced. A parliamentary question showed that £500,000 was allocated to local authorities to support their air quality improvement work for the 2015-16 period – a reduction of 50% since the previous year. We would therefore urge the Treasury to increase investment in this area so that local authorities are able to take necessary action on air pollution. Funding is also important for clean public transport and promotion of walking and cycling.
6. Enhanced Capital Allowances – The cleanest NRMM (Non-Road Mobile Machinery) generators (especially those using hybrid or zero emission systems thereby reducing their energy usage and therefore emissions) should be listed on the Energy Technology List for Enhanced Capital Allowances.
We’re not going to be the first nor the last organisation that says something needs to be done about air pollution in the UK.
Numerous studies have shown that exposure to air pollution can be bad for our health. Generally if you are young or in a good state of health, moderate air pollution levels are unlikely to have any serious effects. However, higher levels and/or long term exposure can lead to more serious symptoms and conditions.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is a membership organisation for environmental health professionals. What makes our voice unique, in what is a very crowded space, is that the environmental health profession is the primary workforce on the front line in the battle against air pollution.
Our members have been critical to the delivery of significant advances in this arena for more than 100 years and particularly since the introduction of the Clean Air Act 1956. Essentially, we’re interested in air pollution because our members ‘do’ air pollution control.
Along with many other organisations, we believe that the Government has shirked its responsibilities, their plans are weak and we need a new air quality strategy. Reversing years of air pollution isn’t going to happen overnight. But there are differing levels of initiatives that the Government should implement.
At a base level, we would like to see the Government make more effort to educate people about air pollution and introduce new initiatives to encourage people to use local public transport or engage in active travel.
Using these simple steps as a solid base, we would like to see incentives for diesel vehicles reversed, while encouraging more individuals and organisations to purchase sustainable hybrid and electric vehicles.
Wider areas of public policy also have their role to play. Additional efforts should be made to better control, mitigate and reduce pollutants through the use of planning powers, such as tree-planting, ‘green walls’ and energy efficiency programmes. NICE’s draft air pollution report also contains sensible suggestions on how to better use local planning by moving traffic hotspots away from residential areas and hospitals.
There’s also an interesting debate being argued around the effect of road safety measures on air quality. While introducing speed bumps and limiting the speed limit in certain areas helps keep people safe, it does mean cars are more frequently stopping and starting and this unfortunately contributes to higher emissions.
The final piece in the jigsaw is the role of central Government. A good start is that they need to be clearer in their plans as to how they are going to fund the proposed Clean Air Zones and not unload the responsibility on local authorities, who are stretched as it is.
And Government must ensure that environmental protections led by the EU are not weakened or eroded during the process of Brexit. To prevent this from happening, we would like to see a new Clear Air Act introduced. An updated piece of legislation that is suitable for today, while sending out a strong message that the Government is taking air quality seriously.
Improving air quality is not a short term project and requires everyone working together to ensure future generations have clean air to breath. We are extremely pleased to be joining the APPG on Air Pollution as one of its newest members and hope our expertise, through our members, will lead to more robust debate and evidence to make effective changes today.
Article by Debbie Wood, Executive Director for Policy and Membership Development, CIEH
Every conversation about reducing urban air pollution revolves around how to cut down traffic, put charges on polluting vehicles to phase them out, introduce a targeted scrappage to help people get out of dirty cars into better alternatives, and put rules in place that will help reduce emissions from other polluting sources such as industry and construction.
So far, so good. All of these measures are necessary and as you might know, Greenpeace has been running a campaign in London to ensure that the ultra low emissions zone proposed by the Mayor is implemented. Once in place, such a zone will ensure that all vehicles on our roads today–cars, cabs, private hire vehicles, buses, trucks, lorries and vans are adhering to particular standards and old and polluting ones are gradually phased out.
But all of these measures could come undone if we don’t acknowledge the ongoing role of the car industry in health crisis we are facing – and the new cars, particularly new diesel cars, that are adding more fuel to the fire. New cars are supposed to have better technology, they are supposed to pollute less and should be encouraged, right? Wrong.
Turns out brand new diesel cars–and I am talking about diesel cars standing in massive parking lots getting ready to be put in swanky glass showrooms and rolled off for test drives–are polluting up to 15 times more than what they should be.
To add insult to injury, ‘clean diesel’ is also a myth. Diesel cars were promoted in the 90s because they allegedly emitted 15-30% less carbon than their petrol counterparts. But this is simply not true any more. In recent years, diesel cars, especially small ones produce as much carbon dioxide as petrol cars.
Independent analyses by research organisations and the Department of Transport have shown that the only place these shiny new cars pollute within limits is when they are being tested in the labs. Once they on the road, they pollute far more.
And this is not new, this has been happening for years. Every time campaigners have tried to push the car companies to agree to real world emissions testing, they have pushed back and postponed the timeline.
And here we are, a good one year after the VW scandal, and brand new diesel cars still emitting up to 15 times more when driven on the roads. The government knows it too. In fact, it’s spent £1m worth of taxpayers money to conduct tests and found none of the diesel cars were meeting pollution standards. And decided to do nothing about it. If there were any other product that was not fit for purpose, and harming health of its citizens, the government would have been asked to end their sales altogether too.
It is not the fault of people who drive these cars. They were encouraged to buy diesel cars over the last couple of decades and offered subsidies and tax breaks to do so, today nearly 50% of cars on Uk roads are now diesel, and this has left UK battling with illegal levels of air pollution.
Better standards for all vehicle types are needed and diesel cars are just the tip of the iceberg. Cleaner trucks, vans and lorries are also needed to clean up our air quality. But hybrid and electric alternatives to heavy vehicles are not easily available. Yet we also know that cleaner alternatives to diesel cars are available, and are available now. There is no time to wait.
In many towns and cities across the UK, air pollution is at illegal and unsafe levels. In 2015, 169 local authorities had areas that breached legal and safe levels for a poisonous gas known as nitrogen dioxide. Likewise, the World Health Organisation published data earlier this year that showed more than 40 places have unsafe levels of particulate matter (PM2.5). To date, progress on air quality has largely been driven by European Union (EU) legislation. In the last two years the government has been taken to court twice for failing to meet EU limits. The prime minister recently acknowledged the scale of this crisis and stated “there is more” for the government to do. We urge the government to ensure these words quickly transpire into actions and tangible solutions that seek to protect all our health.
Air pollution is linked to at least 40,000 early deaths a year and hits the Treasury with a yearly bill of £27 billion. Across Europe, only Italy has a higher number of attributable deaths from nitrogen dioxide. On a global level, some of our most polluted hotspots are on par with cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Unsafe pollution levels increase all our chances of getting lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. For the 12 million people in the UK who already live with a lung condition, pollution can make their condition worse, increase their chance of hospitalisation and early death. Children’s lungs are still growing so they are especially vulnerable to polluted air. Pollution has been shown to stunt their lung growth, irritate their airways and worsen asthma. Young children are in fact so vulnerable to these impacts, that their lung development can be stunted before they are even born.
Good progress has been made by the government over the last year. However the extent of this public health crisis is going to require further and faster action. Under current plans, children will still be breathing unsafe levels of pollution for another 9 years, this will be far too late.
That’s why we’ve launched a petition calling on the UK government to protect children’s lungs from pollution. 60 years ago, the last clean air act successfully laid out policies which helped clean up our industrial pollution. Now we need a new clean air act to tackle our modern pollution problem – traffic fumes. This act will provide an opportunity to set the UK’s legal pollution limits in line with the World Health Organisation, bring together all existing air quality laws and set a national framework to improve public health.
Alongside this, a network of clean air zones should be extended to pollution hotspots across the UK. These zones should seek to restrict emissions from the most polluted vehicles through charging policies and incentives. Cleaner, affordable and accessible transport options must also be promoted to ensure that people have other travel choices.
We have the power in our hands to bring emission levels down, but change won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it is essential that children’s lungs are protected. This should be done by increasing the amount of air pollution monitoring outside schools so parents and teachers have the information they need to protect children’s health.
Most of us know full well what a grim commute in London feels like. But not many of us know that commuting may be so bad for our health that it’s shortening our lives. This is because of the lethal and illegal levels of air pollution that blight London’s air each day. In total, air pollution is shortening Londoners’ lives by over 140,000 years every year, or the equivalent of around 9,400 deaths, a figure that costs the economy more than £3.5 billion.
This is a public health problem of the highest order. The World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) tell us that over 90 per cent of all people across the world are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution and that it is now the cause of around one in 9 deaths – four times more than HIV/AIDS and six times more than malaria. In the UK, this figure stands at around 40,000 deaths per year.
These are big numbers. To get an idea of how air pollution is affecting us personally, I gave one of my colleagues at IPPR a CleanSpace air monitor to take with her when she commuted to work (I take the tube). The monitor recorded how much air pollution she was exposed to as she cycled from her flat in west London, down Kensington High Street, past Hyde Park, and up the Mall to the IPPR offices near Embankment.
What we found was shocking. Each day, as she cycled to and from the office, she was being exposed to ‘high’ levels of air pollution. That is, she was cycling through air of such low quality that it was damaging her health, which could lead to serious problems if she keeps breathing it in. Sometimes over 90 per cent of her journey would be through high levels of air pollution. That’s a lot of bad air to be breathing in day in, day out.
As a result, she would often come into work with a streaming nose, sore eyes, and a cough, and this kind of high, long term exposure will take months off her life expectancy. What’s more, her commute takes her via parks and often onto cycle superhighways; those who are cycle along Marylebone Road and Oxford Street, for example, are being exposed to far greater levels. Not only is this lethal, it’s illegal, as these levels break the limits our own air quality laws put on pollution.
So what’s causing this problem, and what can we do? Firstly, this story should not put you off cycling. The biggest cause of London’s air pollution is its road traffic and, within that, diesel vehicles. In fact, the diesel engine is the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, some of the most dangerous air pollutants in the city. If we used less vehicles, by cycling, tubing, busing and walking to work, or switched to cleaner alternatives, like electric vehicles, we’d nearly solve the problem. In fact, our latest report shows that if we phased out most diesel cars in inner London, we’d have brought all but 0.04 per cent of London to within legal levels of air pollution. This can only happen if more of us use clean transport options, like cycling, and if it becomes more expensive for people to drive the most polluting vehicles.
Such a change won’t be easy. Many Londoners rely on diesel cars to get to work and school, or diesel vans for their businesses. This is partly because the UK government has incentivised diesel over the last couple of decades, mainly because diesel used to emit less carbon and so could help action on climate change, and because the government was not aware of how much air pollution was also being kicked out. Therefore, we’re recommending that central government help out with a scrappage scheme, to lower the cost of switching to a clean vehicle. Furthermore, all this would be made easier if the government gave the mayor control over vehicle excise duty (VED), so London could decide where to spend the money – as it stands, none of the VED Londoners pay is to be spent on transport in the city.
These measures could make sure London stops breaking the law by exposing its population to high levels of air pollution. But we think London can and must go further; one of the most interesting findings coming out of the science is that no level of exposure to air pollution is safe. That means London will ultimately have to begin phasing out any vehicles that produce air pollution.
This will not only increase the amount of cycling and walking – with all the health benefits that result – but change the way we think about traveling around the city. Apps that help us do this more efficiently – like Google Maps and Citymapper – and car share providers who are increasingly giving us the option to not buy a car – including Zipcar and DriveNow – are already showing us what this world may look like. It could also mean that we go beyond our current idea of the 9-5 weekday and minimise the amount of commuting we’re doing in the first place. Now wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?