Saturday, 5 April 2014

What to do about car emissions: from Paris to London... ... ... ... yet again...

Last month it was Paris:
Futures Forum: What to do about car emissions: from Paris to London...

This month it was London:

Which city is "worse"?

A study five years ago put London just below Paris in a 'Green European City Index':

And the measures the Paris authorities put into play have been noted around the world:

London could do much better, with suggestions for emission-free taxi-cabs, for example:

The UK Supreme Court has already declared that air pollution limits are regularly exceeded in 16 zones across the UK:

And last month, the EU announced it was taking legal action against the UK because it was persistently over the safe limit for air pollution - in particular, levels of nitrogen dioxide.
BBC News - UK air pollution: How bad is it?

Geoffrey Lean in this week's Telegraph asks some awkward questions:

Air pollution: What they are not telling us about the smog

Apart from Saharan sand, this week’s air pollution is nothing new – it is just that the Government usually keeps quiet about Britain’s highly contaminated air

Dust particles and pollution from cars hangs over London, seen from Greenwich, as people suffering the effects of high levels of pollution - including sore eyes, coughs and sore throats - should cut down the amount of activity they take outside, experts have warned
There's something in the air: successive governments have shamefully neglected the problem of air pollution. London, for example, is the European capital most polluted by nitrogen dioxide Photo: PA

Suddenly we are all hearing about air pollution. More than three and a half million especially vulnerable people, with heart and lung conditions, were advised to “avoid strenuous activity” yesterday as levels of tiny but dangerous particles in the air reached the maximum level on the Government’s official scale. Even relatively healthy people were advised to “reduce physical exertion”.

Scores of flights were cancelled because of smog, and red dust – swept up from the Sahara and carried by the winds – settled on cars and windows as the scale reached 10 out of 10 in some parts of the country. The crisis led news bulletins and, as mild hysteria took hold, it was even widely described as the worst air pollution to hit England for more than 60 years, since the Great Smog of 1952 killed more than 4,000 people in London over a single weekend.

That is frankly ludicrous. There is nothing particularly special about this week’s pollution, apart from the exotic element added by the Sahara sand mixing in with our usual home brew – and the fact that we know about it.

Indeed, London and South East England suffered a worse air pollution “episode” just last month, but we knew little of what happened. Tellingly, it took place at the same time as the widely publicised incident in Paris, where cars with even number plates were banned from the streets and free public transport was provided to try to persuade people to leave their vehicles – and their belching exhausts – at home.

On March 8 and 9, and again from March 12 to 15, levels of the particulates – minuscule bits of soot – measured in Bloomsbury Square rivalled those at Paris’s Pompidou Centre. During the second of those periods, they actually reached their highest levels in London for two years, far outpacing anything seen so far this week. Yet while Britons were well informed about the pollution in France – and about similar conditions in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – they remained largely ignorant that much the same contaminated air was being breathed at home.

That, of course, was mainly because the Government did not go out of its way to tell them, even though it officially accepts that the particulates kill tens of thousands of Britons every year. That is entirely in keeping with the practice of successive governments in recent years, who have consistently put public relations before public health in this area.

High levels of air pollution occur in Britain, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admits, about five times a year. But the last time it issued a major public alert, according to Client Earth, an environmental law group that has successfully taken ministers to court over the pollution, was two years ago.

The time before that was in April 2011, and the one before that in 2008. Both the Coalition and its Labour predecessor are to blame. Indeed, high pollution levels that would normally have warranted a warning blighted the spring week of 2009 when Gordon Brown hosted the G20 summit, one of the buttresses of his claim to have “saved” the world economy: environmentalists strongly suspect that they were hushed up to save him embarrassment.

This time, too, no formal public alert was given, no press release issued. As on other occasions, Defra did emit tweets, while especially vulnerable people received warnings by text message.

It is not entirely clear why the present pollution has, unusually, received such enormous public attention. One reason may be that the Saharan sand made it especially visible and caught the public imagination – and also gave Whitehall something to blame besides their own failure to clean up emissions at home. Another is likely to be that on Tuesday the Met Office took over the responsibility for providing the Government with pollution forecasts, and enabled Defra to put much more information on its website for those that sought it.

All the same, a survey by the Liberal Democrats found that fewer than 20 of the 935 London schools and nurseries sited within 150 yards of a busy road are aware of a text service that provides free daily air pollution forecasts for the capital. And though 80 per cent of schools say they are concerned about the effects of poor air on their children’s health, only one in 20 head teachers report receiving any official information about pollution over the last year.

This is no trivial issue. Just last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution kills seven million people worldwide every year – making it the cause of one in every eight deaths. While most of these take place in developing countries, where the problem is at its worst, hundreds of thousands are believed to occur in Europe each year.

The particulates – just one of the two most dangerous contaminants – are officially estimated to kill 29,000 Britons annually, which is more than obesity and alcohol combined, and 10 times more than those killed on the roads. The Government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution has suggested that they may play a part in another 200,000 fatalities. No one has produced similar figures for the other big danger, nitrogen dioxide, but a major study across 25 cities has reckoned that living near major urban roads could account for 30 per cent of all asthmas in children.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Dr Maria Neira, a top WHO official last week. And last October studies of some 74,000 births in 12 European countries, including Britain, concluded that babies in polluted areas were more likely to have low birthweight and a smaller head circumference.

Vehicles are the main culprits, contributing half the nitrogen dioxide and 80 per cent of the particulates in London air. Diesel ones – officially encouraged because they emit slightly less carbon dioxide than their petrol-driven counterparts – are especially to blame. A report by Policy Exchange, the Prime Minister’s favourite think tank, has concluded that they emit no less than 91 per cent of the particulates and 95 per cent of the nitrogen dioxide that comes from exhausts.

Successive governments have shamefully neglected the problem. London, for example, is the European capital most polluted by nitrogen dioxide. And though Britain agreed to bring it down to safe levels by 2010, the Government admits this will not be achieved until 2025. The European Commission launched legal action against it in February, citing “16 zones across the UK” including the South East, Greater Manchester, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, and Glasgow.

Ministers have responded, however, by seeking to water down the EU rules. And they also appeared to try to disguise the problem – until prevented from doing so by public opposition last year – by stopping the routine use of hundreds of pollution monitoring stations run by local authorities across the country.

Nor does Boris Johnson have a great record. The Mayor of London scrapped the westwards extension of the congestion charging zone, which would have reduced pollution. He delayed for 15 months pollution controls on vans and minibuses. And he embarked on a futile attempt to “glue” particulates from exhausts to the ground by spraying dust suppressants.

But recently he seems to have had at least the beginnings of a change of heart. Last year he removed an exemption for low-carbon diesel cars from the congestion charge. And in February he promised to establish the world’s first big-city “ultra-low emission zone” in London, outlining a “vision” where almost all the vehicles running in the city centre during working hours would emit little, or no, pollution.

The details have to be worked out, but it is a start. Is it too much to hope that this week’s furore, however overhyped, may spur a wider clean-up?

Air pollution: What they are not telling us about the smog - Telegraph

And John Vidal in the Guardian makes similar scathing observations:

The toxic truth about air pollution: a lethal scandal of British inaction

The 'Saharan' smog is a crisis of our own making. But don't expect ministers to do anything sensible like restricting traffic on the roads

John Vidal

The Guardian, Wednesday 2 April 2014 
Jump to comments (291)

The City of London shrouded in smog. 'Slowly, it is dawning on people that the risks from air pollution are far greater than previously thought or understood.' Photograph: Barcroft Media

Blame the Sahara desert for the present air pollution. Blame Europe. Blame climate change – or even the spring sunshine, or the hole in the ozone layer. But if you are in government please don't mention the fact that the toxic air much of Britain has been breathing is mostly of our own making.

Don't look on the front page of Defra's website for an explanation of its composition, or expect ministers to admit this is a public health emergency. And certainly don't expect local or central government to take action, such as reducing car numbers in the streets or closing down factories. That's what the Chinese and French governments do when the air in their cities is unbreathable and their people are choking. Not us.

What we are not being told is that the milky, hazy skies shrouding southern Britain are the result of tiny particulates, or aerosols, that scatter sunlight and come from our own traffic, power stations, farming, construction sites, central heating boilers and industry. Our own bad air is mixing with pollution drifting in from mainland Europe and a bit of Saharan dust, picked up by unusual weather conditions that have trapped the foul mix over a wide area. It will take until Thursday at the earliest before westerly winds begin to disperse it, the Met office says.

But the results of this will be seen over the coming months as hospitals report increased admissions from people suffering respiratory diseases, strokes, heart attacks and worsening lung conditions. Last year, according to the government's own figures, more than 29,000 people died prematurely from air pollution in Britain, with 4,300 in London alone.

But premature death is just the tip of the iceberg. In the short term, polluted air leads to irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, bronchitis and pneumonia; and over a longer period it results in heart attacks, lung diseases, cancers, and damage to the brain, nerves, liver, and kidneys. We now know that children living near busy roads can show reduced lung capacity by the age of five, and that the poor are most affected as they live in the most polluted areas.

Slowly, it is dawning on people that the risks from air pollution are far greater than previously thought or understood. Last week, the extremely cautious World Health Organisation revised its figures and reported that nearly one in eight of the world's deaths – more than 7 million people a year – are now the direct result of air pollution, and that for every person who dies, there are many more whose health is impaired long term. Put bluntly: every year air pollution kills more people than Aids, smoking, road accidents and diabetes combined, and is the world's single biggest environmental health risk.

Last week, even as Paris banned some traffic to reduce air pollution, London played down the problem, even though our air was just as polluted. London's mayor, Boris Johnson, has several times warned the vulnerable to avoid outdoor exercise, but he is accused of doing virtually nothing to reduce the causes of pollution. As the London assembly member Jenny Jones, Friends of the Earth and others point out, Europe's most polluted major city has no emergency plans to deal with air pollution and no powers even to restrict traffic during periods of smog.

Central government, too, has tried to wash its hands of the problem although it knows that air pollution is costing the NHS billions of pounds a year, and that the supreme court has ruled that the state has a legal duty to protect us from it. Last month the EU finally, after 15 years of warnings, extensions and postponements, launched legal proceedings against Britain for failing to reduce "excessive" levels of air pollution. The government now faces fines of £300m a year, but we can expect it to try everything to reduce pollution – bar restricting traffic.

The need to clear the air is just as great today as in the 1950s when peasouper smogs killed thousands. In 1956 a brave government passed the first Clean Air Act that banned coal burning and reduced pollution spectacularly. Today we have the laws from Europe that would do the same, but no government seems prepared to implement them.

The toxic truth about air pollution: a lethal scandal of British inaction | John Vidal | Comment is free | The Guardian
What is causing the UK's high levels of air pollution? | Environment | theguardian.com

Perhaps Ben Jennings' cartoon in today's Guardian makes the point absolutely clear:

Ben Jennings 5.4.13

Ben Jennings on UK air pollution – cartoon | Comment is free | The Guardian

For the bigger picture from the World Health Organisation:

The ‘Single Largest Environmental Health Risk’ Is Causing 1 in 8 Deaths Worldwide
Steven Hsieh on March 25, 2014 - 1:14 PM ET

A woman wears a mask as she walks under smog in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

Air pollution killed 7 million people worldwide in 2012, about one-in-eight of all deaths, according to new estimates released Tuesday by the World Health Organization.

That figure more than doubles previous estimates, making air pollution the single greatest environmental health risk today. WHO, the United Nations’ public health agency, linked outdoor air pollution to 3.7 million premature deaths in 2012. Indoor air pollution accounted for 4.3 million deaths that year.

The death toll falls disproportionately on low- and middle-income countries, particularly in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions, where more than 70 percent of all air pollution deaths occurred. China, where clouds of smog envelop entire cities, accounts for a sizable chunk of global air pollution deaths. A separate study, published in the Lancet, linked outdoor air pollution to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010.

Scientists have linked air pollution exposure to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Indoor air pollution primarily affects households that still use solid fuels for cooking and heating. The smoke produced from burning coal, wood or dung can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves,” said WHO Assistant Director Dr. Flavia Bustreo in a statement.

WHO linked deaths caused by outdoor air pollution to “unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, waste management and industry.” The report urged policymakers to look towards cleaner options.

“In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” said WHO Coordinator for Public Health Dr Carlos Dora in a statement. “WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”


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