Toxic emissions are down – but people are still dying from air pollution

Oh, yay. Image: Getty.

The UK has made much progress in its efforts to clean the air of toxic pollutants. But while the thick, dirty haze of the 1952 great London smog no longer fills the city streets, air pollution remains a silent killer.

In the UK, poor air quality is responsible for some 40,000 deaths each year. It has been linked to diseases such as cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia. The health problems from exposure to air pollution are costing the nation more than £20bn every year.

Dirty air also causes acid rain, which affects historical monuments, land and aquatic systems, and the excessive release of soil nutrients, which stimulates algae growth in lakes and water courses. It can even form a ground-level ozone gas that damages plants, crops and forests.

Getting clean

The latest update to the UK national air pollution statistics shows that there has been a long-term decrease in emissions from power stations, transport, household heating, agriculture and industrial processes.

Over the past four decades, emissions of key pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane organic compounds and particulate matter have fallen by between 66 per cent and 92 per cent. But emissions of ammonia from the agriculture sector rose by 3 per cent between 2015 and 2016. This has been blamed on manure from larger dairy herds and using fertilisers.

Despite the decline in air pollutants, the UK remains in breach of European limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) in 16 cities, mainly due to diesel fumes from road transport. In 2018, London reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole year within one month: on Brixton Road, South London, NO₂ levels exceed average hourly limits 18 times – the maximum allowed under European air quality rules.

Health warning. Image: David Holt London/Flickr/creative commons.

Trips for free

If air quality is to improve, people must change the way they move around their cities. The UK government intends to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. The rigging of emission tests by car manufacturers has already resulted in consumers ditching diesel – sale of diesel cars fell by 25 per cent in January 2018 compared with the previous year.

In contrast, sales of electric vehicles are growing – though this trend will need to accelerate if 60 per cent of all new cars and vans are to be electric by 2030, as the UK Committee on Climate Change hopes. While electric vehicles will improve air quality by reducing NO₂ emissions, they still produce half of all transport-related particulate matter emissions because of the fine particles released from their brakes, clutches and tyres, as well as the dust thrown up from the roads.


Having fewer cars on the roads would be even better than having cleaner cars. Attitudes may be changing, alongside the rise of the sharing economy. Younger people are using apps to take part in car club schemes, ride-sharing and car-sharing as a way of opting out of the expense and hassle of owning a car. But there’s also a clear need to provide infrastructure that encourages more walking, cycling and public transport.

If the British people want a more radical solution, then they could consider making public transport in cities free. This is already happening in Seoul on days with severe pollution. Germany is reported to be mulling over plans to make public transport free to address air pollution and reduce the number of private cars.

But this doesn’t always work as planned: one analysis of a fare-free public transport scheme in Tallin found that the increase in use was largely from people who normally walk, rather than drive a car.

The ConversationWhile the overall drop in air pollutants is welcome, the UK needs to make further progress to ensure that everyone can breathe clean air.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, Environment Department, University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Brizzle

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, in Bristol. Image: Getty.

This week, we’re off to an English city that, to my shame, I’ve been neglecting: Bristol, the largest city in the south west, and indeed the largest city in the south outside London.

I’m joined by Sian Norris, founder of the Bristol Women’s Literary Festival, to talk about the city she’s lived in since her childhood. She tells me what makes Bristol so liveable, why it’s struggling with inequality, and how it’s coping with the recent influx of London expats bidding up house prices.

Since we’re on his patch, I also spoke to Marvin Rees, who since 2016 has been the elected Labour mayor of the city. He tells me why he was so keen for Bristol to host the Global Parliament of Mayors, and why local politicians need to work together after Brexit. Oh, and he talks about his transport plans, too.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.