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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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