London breaches air pollution limit for all 2017

| 6th January 2017
The Brixton Road in South London, already in breach of its NO2 pollution limits for 2017 on the 6th January. Photo: Nico Hogg via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
The Brixton Road in South London, already in breach of its NO2 pollution limits for 2017 on the 6th January. Photo: Nico Hogg via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Days into the 2017 pollution limits on the Brixton Road in Lambeth, South London, has already breached EU pollution limits for NO2 for the entire year. Meanwhile UK sales of diesel cars - one of the main causes of NO2 pollution - reached record levels in 2016, reflecting the government's failure to tackle the problem in spite of numerous court orders.
Air pollution is a major health threat, particularly to children and other vulnerable people, contributing to around 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year. Road traffic is the biggest culprit - and diesel is the worst.

One the 6th day the 2017 parts of London have already breached their pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for the entire year.

Yesterday pollution monitors on the busy Brixton Road, Lambeth, registered NO2 levels above 200 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre from 7am through until 1am this morning, a total of 18 hours - reaching the EU time limit for the entire year.

Later this morning, between 5am and 7am, another two hours of readings above 200 ug/m3 of NO2 were recorded - pushing the site well above the EU limit.

ClientEarth lawyer and Brixton resident Alan Andrews - a member of the legal team that has won a succession of legal actions against the government for its failure to abide by EU pollution laws - said:

"This is another shameful reminder of the severity of London's air pollution and shows why the Mayor has rightly made tackling it a top priority. It is absolutely essential that he now delivers on his promises and that the national government back him to the hilt.

"He has promised to introduce a bigger ultra-low emission zone in 2019 and to deploy the cleanest buses on the most polluted roads. While these are vital steps in the right direction, we can't wait another three years for action. We need immediate action to cut pollution in the short-term and protect Londoners' health during these pollution spikes."

A number of other London locations, including Putney High Street and Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, are expected to breach this limit shortly. Last year, Putney High Street breached this limit more than 1,000 times.

The principal culprit - diesel vehicles

The main reason for the high pollution levels on these busy roads is pollution from cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes - and diesel vehicles make by far the biggest contribution as their engines operate at higher temperatures than petrol engines causing nitrogen and oxygen in the air to react, producing a cocktail of nitrogen oxides (generically NOx) including the irritant gas NO2.

Friends of the Earth is among those calling for urgent action to tackle air pollution which it says causes almost 10,000 premature deaths in the capital every year. Jenny Bates, FoE's Air Pollution Campaigner, said: "With the new year only days old, it's scandalous that air pollution limits for the entire year have already been breached.

"Air pollution is a major health threat, particularly to children and other vulnerable people, contributing to around 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year. Road traffic is the biggest culprit - and diesel is the worst. This is why the government must take much bolder and quicker action including planning to phase out diesel by 2025."

The environmental campaign group is calling for much stronger and quicker action from the government to meet EU legal limits in the shortest time possible including:

  • Plan for the phase out of diesel vehicles by 2025 as part of a 21st Century Clean Air Act
  • Expand London's Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) for all vehicles across the whole of the capital, and many more and stronger Clean Air Zones (CAZ's) across the rest of the country
  • Invest more in cycling and public transport to give people better alternatives to driving, and don't allow road-building to add to the problem

The group's petition calling for urgent action government action on air pollution is currently receiving dozens of signatures every minute.

Diesel cars now account for 47.7% of new registrations

But in spite of the pollution caused by diesel vehicles and the scandal surrounding VW's 'test-cheating' software designed to artifically reduce pollution emissions under test conditions, sales of new diesel cars reached their highest level in the UK ever, according to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

In 2016 1,285,160 new diesel powered cars were sold, up from 1,276,871 in 2015. Market share declined by 0.6% however this was countered by a 2.3% increase in overall new car sales. This reflects the fact that the government has failed to act to reduce the attractiveness of diesel cars to consumers.

Paul Morozzo, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "Despite growing concerns about the health impacts of diesel fumes, the government has done almost nothing to tackle car companies since they were caught cheating emissions tests.

"In London new rules will mean new taxis and buses will from next year have to be hybrid or better but nothing is happening on diesel cars despite alternatives being readily available. Unbelievably, the government is still incentivising consumers to buy brand new diesel cars that are pumping out illegal levels of pollution.

"If cars coming off the production line had dodgy brakes, you know the government would step in to sort it out. We urgently need to stop the sale of new diesel models until emission testing is truly fit for purpose. Better still, we need car companies to phase out diesel completely and concentrate on hybrid and electric alternatives."

The Greenpeace petition to the government had received over 86,000 signatures at time of writing.

Devastating health impact

In the past few months, doctors, health professionals and campaigners, have all spoken out about the devastating impact of air pollution on human health, especially for children, the elderly, asthma sufferers and other vulnerable groups. Air pollution can cause asthma in otherwise healthy children, stunts children's lung growth permanently by up to 10%, and is linked to strokes, heart disease and diabetes in older people.

Only yesterday research was published in The Lancet showing a link between people's proximity to busy roads and the incidence of dementia. The study, which followed 6.6 million people in Ontario, Canada, for over a decade, found that people who live closest to major traffic arteries were 12% more likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

In November 2016, the High Court in London ruled for the second time in 18 months that the government was not doing enough to combat the air pollution crisis. The judge also said ministers knew that over-optimistic pollution modelling was being used, based on flawed lab tests of diesel vehicles rather than actual emissions on the road. The government must now look again at proposals to bring pollution levels down to legal levels.

"While London has the worst air pollution, this is a national problem which requires a national solution", commented Alan Andrews. "The government's draft plans to tackle air pollution, as ordered by the High Court, are due in April. They must include a national network of clean air zones, which stop the dirtiest diesel vehicles entering pollution hotspots.

"They also have to stop the perverse fiscal incentives which encourage people to use diesel vehicles and instead help them to buy cleaner ones." 



Oliver Tickell is contributing editor at The Ecologist.

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