With the 2012 Olympic countdown well under way, and all eyes focused on London, the city’s and the Games’ environmental policies are coming under increasing scrutiny. Flemmich Web reports on the capital’s air quality in the run-up to the greatest show on Earth.

High stakes

The Olympic organisers raised the stakes by claiming from the outset that London 2012 would be the “greenest Olympics ever”. Much has been written about the general progress against this statement but an increasing area of concern for campaigners as the date of the opening ceremony draws closer is that of air quality. This is not just an Olympic-related issue; there is a wider context of air quality in London that is currently overshadowed by the spectre of substantial fines by the European Commission for non-compliance with air quality targets.

Last month (January 2011), Transport for London (TfL) introduced new PM10 particulate emission limits (Euro IV) for lorries, buses, coaches or other specialist heavy diesel vehicles (commercial and non-commercial) driving into the so-called Low Emission Zone (LEZ). The LEZ, which covers most of Greater London, was introduced in 2008 to encourage the replacement of the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles driving into the capital with less polluting models.

TfL has introduced the third and fourth phases of the LEZ, both of which came into effect on 3 January. Phase 3 extends the LEZ to cover larger vans and minibuses and phase 4 tightens the existing standards for HGVs and buses. According to TfL, introducing LEZ standards for larger vans and minibuses could remove around 80 tonnes of PM10 from the air between 2011 to 2015, equivalent to giving children with chest complaints over 12,000 days free from suffering symptoms and adults almost 18,000 days.

Greener cabs

Others measures introduced include London's first ever age limit on black cabs, which means that any vehicle over 15 years old will not be licensed. TfL says this will take about 2600 taxis off the road this year — about 10% of the total fleet. A new taxi emits around 20 times less particulate matter than a 15-year-old taxi.

Since 1 January, a 10-year age limit for licensed private hire vehicles is applicable to licensed operators. A “no-idling” campaign has also been launched to encourage drivers to turn off their engines when not moving to reduce pollution.

“Delivering cleaner air is key to my goal of creating a better quality of life for Londoners,” said Mayor Boris Johnson, announcing the measures. “2012 is also an historic year during which the eyes of the world will turn to London and I want people to experience a cleaner, greener city before, during and after the Games.”

Too little, too late?

However, critics point out that because the Mayor has delayed the introduction of phase 3 of the LEZ, the impacts have been permanently reduced. It was due to be implemented on 4 October 2010 but Johnson argued that given the tough economic climate, owners and operators of the estimated 70,000 non-compliant vehicles should be given more time to make the necessary changes.

Campaigners point out that as LEZs “bring forward” air quality benefits, delaying implementation permanently reduces the overall benefits of the scheme.

“The Mayor is seeking praise for his latest air quality measures, but yet again they are too little, too late, from a Mayor who just doesn’t seem to understand the problem, and who seems more concerned with a shiny press release than in tackling this devastating public health time bomb,” said Labour's environment spokesman on the London Assembly, Murad Qureshi, commenting on the announcement.

“This is far too late in the day and while the mayor has dithered London’s air has remained lethal. No one has benefited from this delay but everyone has suffered. More people are dying from London's pollution than are killed in road accidents — this can’t continue in a supposedly advanced capital city.”

Capital breaches

Qureshi’s point is part of a broader criticism of London’s air quality policies. Last year, the European Commission delayed proceedings to potentially fine the UK £300m for breaches of air quality in the capital and granted it a time extension to meet a key air quality directive, subject to an emergency action plan.

That emergency action plan has been written but has attracted criticism from Green MP Caroline Lucas, among others, who, writing in support of campaigning organisation Clean Air in London (CAL) last month, said the failure to consult prior to the plan’s submission to the European Commission invalidated it.

“The UK Government has yet to submit a plan that has undergone public consultation,” Lucas wrote. “It has missed therefore the deadline of 30 November 2011 to satisfy the European Commission’s temporary and conditional time exemption for meeting the PM10 daily limit value in London.

She called on the Commission to conduct an “urgent investigation” into the UK’s plans for air quality in London and launch infraction action for the UK’s failure to comply with the PM10 daily limit value since 2005.

Campaigners urge that action on PM10 needs to be taken immediately, despite Johnson’s protestations that he is doing just that, but concede that nitrogen dioxide levels will be harder to tackle. In recent years, the average level of nitrogen dioxide within London has not fallen as quickly as predicted, despite measures being introduced to do so, mainly because diesel cars have created more nitrogen dioxide than anticipated.

Olympic travel

The Olympics has sharpened the focus on air quality issues, and air quality has been addressed in part by the organisers, though their main concern seems to be about reducing carbon rather than focusing on particulate matter.

One of the toughest challenges the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) faces is transport. With an estimated 20 million visitors preparing to travel around the country for the 2012 Olympics, Paralympics and associated cultural events, it has to ensure visitors can move from venue to venue in a safe, efficient manner that minimises the air quality impacts in an already polluted city. The ODA has set itself a tough goal: to get every spectator to the Games by public transport, or by walking and cycling, and there are a number of initiatives in place to encourage this.

A key part of its approach is the Olympic Route Network (ORN), a network of roads to speed Olympic dignitaries (officials, journalists, sponsors, athletes etc) around the city’s roads. Most of the route is shared with normal traffic but there will be priority measures for traffic going to and from the Olympic site. In central London there will be dedicated Games lanes where non-Olympic traffic is banned.

The “Big Scare”

The “Big Scare” campaign is supposed to stop Londoners driving in the capital during the Games to try to reduce non-Olympic traffic by 30%, as the impact of the ORN will be to reduce road space in London for general traffic and without the reduction could increase congestion and pollution.

Campaigners remain skeptical. Last October, founder and director of Clean Air London Simon Birkett responded to TfL’s consultation on “Temporary road changes for the London 2012 Games” by saying that plans for the ORN were unlawful and vulnerable to legal challenge through judicial review.

He said the proposals would trap vehicles and pedestrians in local streets, force people down one lane or perhaps two alongside the ORN or the Paralympic Route Network (PRN) with all the buses and taxis, and rely too much on the “Big Scare”.

Legacy learning

Can London learn anything from other Olympic cities that have tried to tackle air quality? Beijing, infamous for its smog, took drastic action to ensure smog-free days during the Olympics including reducing the number of private cars on the road, reducing the number of Government car journeys, temporarily halting any construction projects in the city while the Games were on, cleaning roads to reduce surface dust and reducing the output of industrial processes that were supplied by coal-fired power stations.

Both Sydney and Beijing introduced number plate-based driving restrictions: vehicles with number plates ending in even numbers were allowed on the road every other day, with odd-numbered plated cars allowed on the other days.

London is unlikely to implement such extreme measures but it is clear that the Olympics will draw attention to air quality in the capital.

“If we have still, hot days, long-distance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists who breathe very hard, could feel a tightness in their chest or experience coughs, breathlessness or other problems,” says Birkett. Newspapers could have a field day.

But whatever the headlines, the fact remains that London’s air quality needs serious attention, and not just when the city is the focus of the world’s attention.

“London faces an unfortunate legal crunch point for air quality that coincides with the eyes of the world focusing on the city for the Olympic Games,” says Environmental Policy Consultant Ed Dearnley.

“European standards for nitrogen dioxide are widely exceeded across London with zero chance of meeting these by the time of the Games, whilst there is a significant chance that standards for particulate matter will also be breached during 2012.

“Breaches of air quality limits, and associated enforcement action by the European Commission, would undermine London 2012's claim to be the ‘greenest ever games’, and be deeply embarrassing to the Games’ organisers and sponsors.”

Last reviewed 8 February 2012