What is wrong with London’s air? Following a warm, sunny, early spring, the U.K. capital’s atmosphere has been a soupy, smoggy mess in recent months, with pollutants detected in the air reaching national maximum levels of pollution alert. Much blame for this has been shouldered by a recent Saharan desert storm that dumped grit and sand over the city, but so poor are conditions in general that Britain’s parliament is now launching an official enquiry. They want to work out why London’s City Hall has done so little to ease the problem and to pinpoint the primary cause of the city's grubby air. Their answer will be interesting, but I’ll hazard an early guess. It probably isn’t desert dust.
Certainly, that hasn’t helped. When a cloud of North African grit blew over London a few weeks back, I woke to find a dusty film covering my windows, as well as the washing I’d hung out on the fire escape to dry. While there’s something romantic about shaking Saharan dust off pajamas that have never left London, there’s nothing romantic about breathing it in. The winds bringing the dust also brought a load of pollution from continental Europe, raising the possibility that some of the U.K.’s particulate overload was part of the cloud swirling around Paris a week or so beforehand.
The “foreign invasion” theory fits in with ingrained local assumptions that smog is a phenomenon largely exotic to temperate Britain, a sick joke mainly played against the likes of Los Angeles and Athens for their warm, sunny weather. Nonetheless, polluted air can and does speed many Britons to their deaths with a striking consistency that goes far beyond isolated outbursts. Government agency Public Health England estimates that air pollution shortens British life expectancy by 6 months, while in some parts of London as many as 1 in 12 deaths have pollution as one of their root causes.
Official responses to the problem have been weak. London City Hall’s reaction in particular has been widely criticized as half-hearted and lackadaisical, even by its closest media allies. While Paris’ recent pollution spike saw it ban half the city’s cars from the road and made the Metro free, London only offered some mild suggestions about not cycling and keeping kids indoors, while the mayor hit back with a florid piece blaming the problems on anywhere but Britain itself. This is nonsense. Over the past five years, Britain has experienced 900 days on which air pollution has exceeded levels deemed safe by the European Union. We can’t blame all of those on the wind.
Granted, City Hall has at least got one good plan up its sleeve: setting up an Ultra Low Emissions Zone in Central London into which only vehicles with zero and low emissions will be admitted. The plan is going to remain in that sleeve for many years, however. As the zone will not start until 2020, London’s current mayor (who steps down in 2016) will have nothing whatsoever to do with its implementation.
So what more could be done? Bringing in the Ultra Low Emissions Zone much earlier would help. So would cutting subsidies on diesel, whose relatively lower carbon emissions compared to gasoline are offset by far higher particulate emissions, even in the low sulfur diesel more commonly used in the U.S. In London’s case, though, it’s not just a question of curbing private motor vehicle use. London’s black cabs have particularly high emissions, as do its buses.
London’s cycling safety record is also poor, and making conditions safer could also make a big difference. A World Health Organization report published today said that London could save over 500 lives annually if it upped the city’s level of daily cycling to that of Copenhagen – a level that might be reached more easily if this backstreet cycling plan were already being implemented. Currently 26 percent of journeys in the Danish capital are made by bike, and if London matched this, it could substantially cut both premature deaths due to pollution and road collisions.
The good news is that London has been very successful in cleaning up its air in the past. Banning the coal fires that caused winter smogs back in 1956 surely saved many thousands of lives. If we build up a similar level of momentum for change right now, London’s air could be a pleasure to breathe and a beacon to other cities. Hell, one day I might even be able leave the house without my inhaler.
Top image: A view of the river Thames and the Tower Bridge in central London on Thursday, April 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)