Sunrise over London in 2011, when London experienced similarly high pollution Kieran Doherty/Reuters

As residents breathe in the worst air in decades, the city is taking almost no meaningful action. To clear things up, officials should follow the examples of Paris, Madrid, and other European cities.

London’s air quality was so bad on Monday that sensors in the city center reached a “black alert”. This is the highest level of alert the city records, after which citizens are encouraged to reduce physical exertion or risk health problems. Some centrally located elementary schools are now keeping their students indoors, with twelve other locations around London also reporting red alerts (the next level down) after crisp winter conditions and a lack of wind trapped warmer, polluted air close to the ground.

This means London is currently experiencing some of its worst pollution in decades, with some areas experiencing double the legal limit of dangerous particulate matter. Aerial photos of the city confirm what every wheezing pedestrian is feeling—that the city is being smothered in a lethal, semi-translucent mantle of pollutants that is relentlessly hammering the population’s lungs.

Thankfully, the city is pulling out all the stops as part of a radical but effective plan to make the city’s air breathable again.

Just kidding! So far, London’s response to the air crisis has been, to put it simply, useless. City Hall has at least been working on public awareness—the alert system itself was introduced during the current mayor’s term, while there are some little scrolling warning signs mentioning high pollution at bus stops and tube stations. The emphasis of this advice, however, is not to reduce the number of drivers on the roads, but to encourage people to stay home. As some have noted, this seems to suggest that the real problem with the city’s pollution is all these misguided Londoners who insist on breathing in.

Meaningful action, however, has been absent. There have been no extra speed limits imposed on any city roads, no alternate driving days (or even proposals for them), no increase in public transit or reduction in fares to encourage drivers or taxi passengers off the road. Compare this to Paris, which just this morning introduced a permanent system which bans the most polluting cars, and will then gradually phase out the worst of the remainder. Paris has also used alternate driving days during pollution peaks for several years, with considerable success in clearing the air.

Paris may be pushing harder against pollution than most cities, but it’s no mere outlier. Madrid also has a system in place for pollution peaks that includes lowered speed limits and alternate driving days, all the way up to an all-out driving ban in the worst periods. Both Rome and Milan have tried similar bans, while last week Oslo, facing similar conditions to London, introduced a temporary ban on diesel vehicles. This isn’t just a phenomenon limited to capitals, either. Faced with similar conditions to London’s, the French cities of Lyon and Villeurbane (which together form France’s second largest metro area) are introducing alternate driving tomorrow.

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan hasn’t introduced anything like this in London, and given his limited mandate, may not even have the power to. To be fair, Khan has supposedly made air quality a priority—he introduced the alert system mentioned earlier—and his frequent statements on the issue are at least developing one important tool for tackling the problem: increased public awareness. The next major step toward lowering London’s pollution, however—a so-called “Ultra-low Emissions Zone”—won’t come into effect until fall 2020.

Meanwhile Britain’s central government has blocked plans that could make a difference, such as introducing an extra charge for diesel vehicles entering polluted cities. So poor is the government’s record that the U.K.’s High Court has ruled its pollution tackling plans so insufficient as to actually be illegal. Against this background of studied incompetence, it’s understandably hard for London’s own authorities to make much of a difference.

Meanwhile, 9,500 people a year in London die prematurely thanks to the impact of the city’s pollution. While the city once pioneered action against pollution (such as introducing the Congestion Charge in 2003), it’s now falling behind its European counterparts, which face similar challenges and are often so close that they even experience some of the same pollution, driven by the wind. Britain’s disconnect from the general trend among its Western European neighbors—definitely greater at the national than the local level—isn’t just a pity. For some Londoners, it may potentially prove lethal.

About the Author

Feargus O'Sullivan
Feargus O'Sullivan

Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.

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