Why is it acceptable that air pollution kills thousands each year in the UK?

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 ...

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 Original description: Nelson’s Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December 1952, a combination of cold weather, high atmospheric pressure and windless conditions collected airborne pollutants to form a thick layer of smog over London.  Over the four days that the smog lasted, thousands died prematurely and tens of thousands were hospitalised for respiratory illness.  Action was needed and in 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed, the first comprehensive attempt to control smoke emissions from homes and industry in the UK.

Fast forward 60 years, and where are we?  Well, thousands die prematurely and tens of thousands are hospitalised each year as a result of air pollution in London.  Don’t be mistaken, the Clean Air Act has been a success – the big killer in the Great Smog of 1952 was sulphur dioxide from the burning of coal and this is no longer a significant problem in the UK.  The pollutants of concern now are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, mainly from vehicle engines.  Various epidemiological and toxicological studies into the health effects of traffic-related air pollution have identified a range of effects including cardiopulmonary conditions, increased risk of non-allergic respiratory symptoms and disease, myocardial infarction, changes in the regulation of the nervous system and inflammatory responses. Further studies have identified an increased risk of various cancers such as lung cancer with prolonged exposure, adverse effects during pregnancy and a decrease in male fertility.

There is legislation in place to manage these pollutants.  The EU has set air quality limit values (expressed as ‘objectives’ in UK law, interestingly).  These limit values are based on empirical data about the effect the pollutants have on health – some pollutants have standards expressed as annual average concentrations due to the chronic way in which they affect health and others have standards expressed as 24-hour, one-hour or 15-minute average concentrations due to the acute way in which they affect health. Some pollutants have standards expressed in terms of both long-term and short-term concentrations, as they have the potential to cause both chronic and acute health effects.

The UK Government passes the responsibility for meeting the air quality objectives to local authorities.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities are required to review and assess air quality. Where objectives are not predicted to be met, local authorities must declare the area as an Air Quality Management Area. In addition, local authorities are required to produce an Air Quality Action Plan which includes measures to improve air quality within the Air Quality Management Area.  But that’s as far as it goes.

In the UK, most large cities fail to meet the air quality objectives.  In some areas, such as in Brixton and Putney, both in London, the objectives are exceeded by a factor of three.  The result of this has been estimated at 50,000 premature deaths per year across the UK by a House of Commons Committee report. The Greater London Authority has also commissioned research which suggests that air pollution contributed to 4,267 premature deaths in London in 2008.

Clearly the system is not working.  With the Great Smog of 1952 providing a stark realisation that earlier legislation was not working (air quality legislation in the UK dates back to the Alkali Act 1863) and that death and disease on this scale was not acceptable, the Government of the day passed the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Faced with economic woes (sound familiar?), the Government (Conservative, led by Harold Macmillan) took action, albeit following severe pressure from back benchers.  They took bold, costly and effective steps to deal with the problem. So, faced with an air quality and mortality problem on a similar scale, what does our Conservative (and Liberal Democrat) Government of 2012 do?  According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, “the Government is putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules instead of prioritising action to cut pollution on UK roads.”  And rather than cutting pollution from UK roads, this Government, also faced with economic difficulties, chooses instead to spend £1 billion building more roads.

Why is this acceptable?

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London Mayor Election – Voting with My Bike

Boris Johnson graffiti

Boris Johnson graffiti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 3 May, London will go the polls and elect a new mayor. Or re-elect the old one. Or re-elect the one who came before him perhaps.

As a London resident and cyclist, this election is of great interest to me.  Thankfully, a number of organisations have done the hard work and analysed the manifestos of the various candidates from a number of perspectives of interest to me.

In the last two months I have cycled over 350 kilometres on my commute, so in the upcoming election I will most definitely be voting with my bike.  Transport is one area the London mayor has massive control over, so the policies of the next mayor will have significant bearing on my life..

The London Cycling Campaign, of which I am a proud member, has been very vocal in the run up to the election. Being a charity, they do not go so far as advising people on how to vote, but they have conducted a review of the main candidates manifestoes, scoring each of the main candidates on their cycling policies.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jenny Jones of the Green Party comes out on top.  Ken Livingstone of the Labour Party was some way behind in second place, leaving Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party and Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrat Party far behind.

The London Cycle Campaign is also running a longer term campaign under the banner ‘Love London, Go Dutch’; they say “We’re calling on the next Mayor of London to build continental-standard cycling infrastructure in the capital, so everyone has the freedom to cycle, whatever their route, and whatever their destination.” It was recently confirmed by the LCC that Jenny Jones, Brian Paddick and Ken Livingstone had all committed to taking forward all three of the LCC’s Go Dutch demands if they were elected. If only Boris were to commit, then we would be nearly certain of this happening in the next mayoral term.

Finally, as a show of the strenght of feeling with regard to cycle safety, the LCC organised the UK’s largest-ever bike ride supporting safer streets for cycling on Saturday 28 April.  The Big Ride, as it was called, attracted over 10,000 cyclists, despite atrocious weather.

The Cyclists in the City blog has been closely following the mayoral campaigning.  I have picked up a number of interesting tidbits from this.  Boris Johnson is the subject of much ire.  I found this particular post, entitled Jeremy Clarkson admits he loves Copenhagen-style cycling and implicitly rejects Boris Johnson’s cycling strategy, as fourth transport organisation slams Mayor’s transport policies. Why are London’s Conservatives so out of touch on cycling as a normal, safe, everyday mode of transport?, very interesting in highlighting some of the big problems with Boris’s transport policies.

Londoners on Bikes has been set up specifically in the run up to the election to mobilise the cyclist vote.  The organisation is seeking to engage with all of the main candidates for mayor to demand action on cycle safety.  The day before the election, they will recommend the candidate to vote for with the best plan to make London safe for bikes.  Their preliminary ranking, released a week ahead of the election, had Jenny Jones in first place, Ken Livingstone in second, Brian Paddick in third, and Boris way back in last place.

For me, this is not simply about making London a better place for cyclists.  I see it as just one fundamental part of making London a more livable city; a city fit for cyclists is also a city fit for pedestrians, a city fit for children to play in the streets, a city fit for outdoor eating and drinking, a city where you can open your window without being deafened by traffic noise and a city where thousands of people will not die prematurely due to the effects of air pollution.

interestingly, a study by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth looking at the green credentials of all the candidates from a broader sustainability perspective arrives at the same ranking as Londoners on Bikes – Jones, Livingstone, Paddick, Johnson.

Before campaigning for the election had begun I had thought that perhaps there isn’t much between the main candidates, particularly between the favourites Boris and Ken.  Having reviewed all this information I can see that there is some clear daylight between them, and also come compelling reasons to look at the other candidates too.  The voting system used also gives a great opportunity to register a first preference vote for one of the less likely candidates, while reserving a second preference for Boris or Ken, if that was your choice.  So when Thursday comes, I will be hopping on my bike to the local polling station and although it won’t be coming with me into the booth, I will certainly be voting with my bike.

Green Government – Where Do We Stand?

Logo of Conservative Party UK

Green Government? Image via Wikipedia

After winning the 2010 election, the UK’s new government pledged to be the greenest ever.  So a year on where are we?

This week, the larger of the two parties forming the UK’s coalition government, the Conservative Party, held its annual party conference.  It didn’t start well for environmentalists when the Chancellor, George Osborne (the man who in 2009 said “If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe”), revealed his plan that “We’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, then revealed plans to increase the speed limit on British motorways to 80 miles per hour.  The government acknowledged soon after that this would lead to more pollution and increase the risk of road deaths.  I find this policy completely bonkers – aren’t governments there to protect the people, even from themselves?

Then we had  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, the man in charge with a clear vision for how to take the country forward.  His speech did not use the words ‘environment’, ‘carbon’ or ‘climate’ even once.  He said ‘green’ twice and, according to The Guardian, “both mentions of ‘green’ were in passing.  One was part of a wide-ranging blast by David Cameron at the [previous] Labour [government]’s failings. The other – ‘green engineering’ – also came as part of a list of technologies a new economy would be built on.”

So all in all not very promising.  The Guardian newspaper has been tracking the government’s progress using a Green-o-meter, and following the Conservative Party Conference, they dropped the needle from doing better than ‘middle of the road’ to doing worse, and I tend to agree.

There simply does not seem to be any fresh ideas coming from the government, with the same old rhetoric focussing always on GDP growth and short-sighted protectionism of established industries.  Andrew Simms in The Guardian asked Why protect BAE jobs when you can convert them to the green economy?  He argued against protecting jobs in the arms industry while setting out greater benefits that would arise from spending on houses, public transport and infrastructure.  I also think there must be a lot of talented engineers and other professionals in the arms industry whose skills could be put to more humane uses elsewhere.

And finally I also read this week about Niu Wenyuan, a senior economist and government adviser in China who is trying to promote the use of a ‘quality index’ which measures the economy not just by size, but by sustainability, social equality and ecological impact.  You might say that this would then give a truer sense of costs and benefits than relying on GDP alone as a measure of progress.  This seems like a great idea to me, and it may or may not take off in China, but I can’t see it being adopted in western democracies where our politicians can’t see past the next election and don’t seem to have the vision or courage to stray from the accepted way of doing things.