Return of the pea-souper

Just five days into the new year, a street in Lambeth exceeded its annual legal limit for toxic air. Why is London’s pollution so bad? Alex Rankine reports.

How bad is it?

Many areas of London routinely exceed EU pollution limits. Last month a street in Lambeth broke its annual legal limit for toxic air just five days into the new year, with many other London locations following suit. The city declared its first “very high pollution alert” last month after a period of cold, still weather resulted in air particulate readings soaring to higher levels than those recorded in the infamously smoggy city of Beijing (see below). The EU has given Britain two months to explain how it will tackle the problem, or face a case at the European Court of Justice and potential five-figure daily fines until it cleans up. The final warning comes after 16 areas of the UK, including Birmingham, Glasgow and Leeds, were found to have persistently breached limits on nitrogen dioxide.

What causes the pollution?

Vehicle emissions are the main culprit. The UK has a particular problem with emissions from diesel vehicles, which make up about half of the private cars on the road. Under Gordon Brown’s chancellorship, the government provided incentives for diesel cars because they emit less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles, but their engines have since been found to be a major source of toxic nitrogen dioxide in cities. However, gridlocked traffic is not the only cause of smog. During the winter months, about 10% of air pollution is thought to come from domestic fires, with the growing popularity of wood-burning stoves partly implicated in London’s pollution spikes.

What is the government doing?

The government says that since 2011 it has put more than £2bn towards green transport schemes and ultra-low emission vehicles. However, the High Court ruled last November that the government’s plans to tackle Britain’s air pollution were so insufficient as to be illegal – the second time the government has faced a court defeat on the issue in the past two years. The Treasury previously blocked plans to charge diesel cars to enter polluted city centres, for fear of angering the motoring lobby.

It has also rejected proposals from the environment and transport departments to encourage the purchase of low-pollution vehicles through changes in the vehicle excise duty regime. The government has said it will publish plans to tackle the problem this spring, and the latest warning from the European Commission will heighten the pressure to produce robust policies.

What about the London mayor?

The Greater London Authority plans to introduce an ultra-low emission zone in central London before the end of the decade. In the zone, drivers of vehicles that fail to meet tough new emissions standards will be required to pay a daily charge to travel inside the city’s congestion charge zone.

To bridge the gap before the introduction of the zone, Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has announced that a “toxicity charge” for some older and more polluting vehicles entering the city will be implemented from October. Most vehicles registered before 2005 will face the £10 daily “T-charge” in addition to the congestion charge, meaning it will cost £21.50 for the driver of an older vehicle to travel in central London.

Will it work?

Critics point out that Transport for London’s (TfL) own consultation document predicts that the T-charge will have a limited impact on pollution in London, while costing Londoners £23m a year in higher charges. The document states that “as this scheme affects just 7% of vehicles entering the C-charge [congestion charge] zone, the anticipated reduction in air pollution is low”.

Conservative members of the London Assembly argue that the measure will disproportionately hit small businesses and sole traders who cannot afford to upgrade their work vehicles. However, TfL argues that “the emissions surcharge is a strong signal from the mayor, and shows he is tackling air quality, removing older polluting vehicles and ensuring the ‘polluters pay’”.

What does air pollution cost us?

The London mayoralty estimates that elevated nitrogen dioxide and air particulate levels are responsible for 9,400 early deaths in London each year. About 40,000 Britons are thought to die prematurely every year as a result of exposure to polluted air. However, the air in Britain is a lot better than it used to be. London’s air meets legal limits for pollutants such as lead and carbon monoxide, while ozone levels have fallen in recent decades.

However, high levels of nitrogen dioxide and so-called PM2.5 particulates mean that the air we breathe continues to take a toll on human health. The economic cost is also considerable. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that air pollution costs the economy more than £20bn per year, with six million working days lost
each year from pollution-related illnesses.

Is London worse than Beijing?

On several occasions during London’s pollution alert this January, air particulate levels in certain areas of the city were greater than the equivalent readings for Beijing. In 2014 it was reported that central London’s levels of nitrogen dioxide exceeded those of the Chinese capital.

However, these incidents are exceptions to the general pattern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that particulate levels in Beijing are about five times worse than London’s on average. Chinese cities frequently suffer “airpocalypse” episodes during winter, when pollution causes severely reduced visibility in a manner reminiscent of the “pea soups” of 1950s London. About 1.1 million people are thought to die prematurely in China each year because of air pollution. However, China may no longer be the world’s most polluted major country. WHO figures show that Indian cities are suffering from some of the worst air quality on the planet.