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London's Plan for a Proper Air Pollution Warning System

Electronic displays, texts, and social media blitzes will all feature.

The London skyline under smog. (David Holt/Flickr)

London will introduce a robust air pollution warning system, says the city’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan. In an announcement made earlier this week, Khan promised to forge new ways to warn the public about poor air quality, using such means as electronic displays and text alerts.

The plan comes at the right time. While London has made efforts to reduce emissions in recent years, public awareness of the city’s air pollution problem remains low, sapping much of the potential for meaningful action.

A proper warning system could change this. The exact package of warnings is as yet to be determined, but possible measures include notifications of moderate, high or very high pollution at Tube stations and bus stops, which already have suitable electronic displays. Similar displays on major roads, already used to warn of congestion, could also be installed, as could a free SMS warning system, which especially vulnerable groups such as asthmatics could be signed up to by their doctors. Finally, the mayor’s office has vowed to communicate pollution alerts more fully on social media and through press releases to the traditional media.

This information upgrade is something London badly needs. The more proactive example of Paris shows just how much. When unusually high pollution hits the French capital, significant action is taken, such as during a pollution peak in 2014 when a driving ban was introduced until conditions improved. This not only reduced pollution levels, it also increased public awareness of the problem in a way that allowed the city to take more drastic anti-pollution action in the years that followed.

London actually suffered a similar air pollution spike during the same period as Paris’s car ban, laboring as it was under not dissimilar climactic conditions. In Britain’s capital, however, no action was taken. Indeed, then-Mayor Boris Johnson passed the buck on from motor vehicle emissions to a handy deus-ex-machina: a cloud of “Saharan dust” blown across the Mediterranean by freak winds. This dust was indeed a factor, but its effect compared to other pollutants was significantly exaggerated, pushing a public sense that the city’s terrible air quality was an unavoidable act of nature rather than something that could be alleviated by city policy. And while Paris’s pollution wake-up call led to a crackdown on diesel vehicles, their share of the London vehicle fleet actually grew between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, Londoners suffered, with emergency call-outs for residents with respiratory diseases rising by 14 percent during the “Saharan” emergency, surely just the iceberg’s tip when considering the overall effects to residents’ long-term health.

Steadily, London’s terrible air quality has become more of a story. The ability of some London streets to exceed annual E.U. guidelines on safe pollution levels within a week of new year is now notorious. Various parts of London are also emerging as known blackspots for particulate pollution, and with that knowledge comes pressure for action. But as a Londoner with asthma, I still tend to find out about pollution crises the hard way—by suddenly noticing that I’m wheezing abnormally when running for a bus. The public has a right to proper information about health hazards like these. Without it, there’s little chance of improvement.

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