Forget images of smog-wrapped Beijing as the symbol of airborne threats of urban living. London has been warned to stop dragging its feet over air quality. But the Government has reacted quickly to carbon dangers with a new zero emissions target. Jon Herbert looks at the breath of life.

It is difficult to avoid the atmosphere. Opting out is not an option. That can be an uncomfortable thought when, far from being an invisible innocent, the air that we breathe is a silent killer.

Anxious to show international leadership in reducing man-made greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the Government announced in March the introduction of a new zero carbon emissions policy. Although the existing reduction target of 80% by 2050 sounds stringent, ministers now think the problem too severe for the UK to risk any future CO2 releases and that ending all emissions will be tough but practical and possible.

At street level, the story is different. Tackling air pollution is proving to be an intractable problem. However, the UK has been given a red card. The European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK must put in place a plan to achieve air quality standards in the “shortest time possible”. In the interim, the task of enforcing EU air quality standards in Britain has been placed in the hands of the courts to see what they can do.

Invisible version of “The Great Stink”

In July and August 1858, London experienced The Great Stink. Hot weather made the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of the River Thames unbearable. Ageing and inadequate sewers were the problem. After three outbreaks of cholera and several false starts, a new sewerage proposal from civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to move effluent eastwards outside the metropolitan area was the eventual solution.

A century and a half later, there are no silver bullets to solve the modern equivalent of an air pollution crisis. And that is part of the problem. However, the situation is now so acute that a legal gun is being put to the head of local and national authorities.

Only weeks into the New Year, parts of London exceeded annual air pollution limits. EU rules stipulate that specific sites can only breach NO2 hourly limits of 200 micrograms per cubic metre of air 18 times a year. Parts of Putney High Street are reported to have breached limits in the second week of January. Chelsea and Kensington followed suit. Even more disturbing is evidence that NO2 levels inside vehicles can be 2.5 times higher than those outside. And problems are not restricted to London.

The crisis is worse than The Great Stink, with no counterpart since the 14th century, according to one campaigner. Founder and director of campaign group Clean Air in London Simon Birkett says, “Put simply, diesel exhaust is the biggest public health catastrophe since the Black Death.”

Think tank report

Nitrogen dioxide inflames lungs, stunts the growth of young people and increases respiratory disease risks, including asthma and lung cancer. Its main source is diesel vehicles that meet official laboratory emission test but exceed them on the road.

In part one of its think-tank report, Up in the Air, the Policy Exchange's Capital City Foundation and King’s College London found that nearly 25% (328,000) of the capital’s schoolchildren and 44% (3.8 million) of its workforce are exposed to illegal unhealthy air pollution. Within these figures it found that the most polluted areas had NO2 levels nearly four times above the legal limit; of the 12.5% area of London affected, deprived parts are likely to be hit hardest. Monitoring showed that 979 of London’s 3161 schools are over the NO2 limit; Westminster, Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Camden are particularly at risk.

The report noted that many good initiatives have so far failed to combat poor air quality. It pointed to growing numbers of diesel vehicles, buses, taxis and cars which “systematically failed to match up to emissions standards due to illegal and legal cheating of emissions tests”. The think tank added that continuous growth in decentralised energy across London could increase the air quality threat, with gas combustion in buildings becoming responsible for 48% of Central London NOx emissions by 2025.

The overall conclusion is that if NO2 level improvements are delivered in full by 2025, life expectancy could increase by some six months. But if air pollution stays at current levels, average life expectancy of Londoners born in 2010 could be reduced by up to 2 years.

Latest report

On 23 March, the think tank published Up in the Air: Part 2, proposing comprehensive measures to reduce emissions and improve London air quality with a dual-focus on road transport and gas combustion.

It wants to see:

  • a more ambitious air quality strategy

  • restrictions stopping the most polluting vehicles from entering London

  • clean taxis and bus fleets

  • more electric cars and car clubs

  • tighter new diesel emission standards

  • increased taxes on new diesels

  • a diesel scrappage scheme

  • no pollution generators built in London

  • no emissions from gas boilers.

It hopes to see air quality improvements as soon as possible that do not penalise people and businesses and allow sufficient time for adaption.

Action through the courts

The Government could soon face legal action. The cudgels have been taken up by environmental law firm ClientEarth, which in April 2015 obtained a Supreme Court ruling that an immediate mitigation plan was needed after the UK breached EU NO2 limits. The firm argues government plans still fail to protect health and on 18 March 2016 lodged papers at the High Court in London seeking judicial review. It has also served papers on government lawyers.

The Government says it remains committed to clean air and is creating special anti-pollution zones in Leeds, Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and London; £2 billion will have been from 2011 onwards to improve standards of buses, dustbin lorries and fire engines. A spokesman added, “Our plans clearly set out how we will improve the UK's air quality through a new programme of Clean Air Zones, which alongside national action and continued investment in clean technologies will create cleaner, healthier air for all.”

Even so, it does not foresee air quality meeting EU health standards until 2020 for the UK in general, and by 2025 in London. It points to problems in getting older dirty vehicles off the roads.

ClientEarth believes more could have been done in the last five years and that the ministerial code obliges ministers to abide by court rules. It adds that the European Commission could fine the UK but is waiting to see the British legal process exhausted before considering intervention.

New threat from air pollution

The Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health say that while outdoor air pollution contributes to some 40,000 UK deaths a year, harmful indoor air pollution effects must also be considered. Tobacco still poses the largest indoor threat, plus wood-burning stoves, cleaning products and air fresheners. Lemon-and-pine scents that make indoor environments smell fresh can react chemically to generate air pollutants; ozone-based air fresheners may also cause indoor air pollution. Mould and mildew in poorly ventilated rooms cause illness too.

“Being indoors can offer some protection against outdoor air pollution, but it can also expose us to other air pollution sources,” their report says. It adds, “indoors we can also be exposed to NO2 from gas cooking and solvents that slowly seep from plastics, paints and furnishings.”

Air pollution from both factories and traffic can now be linked to heart disease and lung problems, with asthma alone costing the NHS an estimated £1bn a year, according to report co-author, Prof Jonathan Grigg. He believes it essential that policy makers consider long-term exposure effects. Reporting group chairman and Southampton University asthma expert Prof. Stephen Holgate warns against complacency. “We can't see it, smell it or taste it, which is why people do not necessarily think we have a problem,” he says.

New zero carbon law

On 15 March, the Government announced climate laws changes to cut carbon emissions to zero. Following December 2015’s Paris climate deal, ministers feel it is time to make the ultimate cut.

Speaking in the Commons, energy minister Andrea Leadsom said it was necessary to “take the step of enshrining the Paris commitment to net zero emissions in UK law”. She added, “The question is not whether but how we do it. And there are an important set of questions to be answered before we do. This is an example once again of the House demonstration on a cross-party basis a determination to tackle climate change.”

Last reviewed 11 April 2016