Mist-ery Behind UK’s Failing Air Pollution Efforts

Almost every year the same topic hits the headlines – the serious and pressing issue of air pollution in cities across the UK. Since 2010, the UK has exceeded the EU nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution limit every year, often or not within the first few weeks. In London, this troubling pattern continued into 2017, this time breaching the limit in just 5 days.

Under EU law, if a city’s average hourly level of NO2 exceeds 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times in a year, then they have broken the law. At the beginning of 2017 records released by the London Air Quality Network at King’s College London revealed that the maximum level of acceptable air pollution had been breached 19 times already on Brixton Road alone. In 2016, a similar event happened however on Putney High Street and went on to exceed the hourly limit more than 1,100 times that year. Air pollution is often underestimated in its severity. However, with reports of air pollution causing 50,000 early deaths, and links to cancer and heart problems pushing the annual health related costs to £27.5bn, it is clearly an issue that demands more attention.

Britain may not be the only country to have exceeded the limit; however they are repeat offenders. Countries in the EU have been warned since 2008 to reduce their air pollution levels in accordance to the law, with the UK government receiving 15 years of prior warnings and granted several extensions, and yet the problem still persisted. In 2014 the European commission hit the government with a £300million fine for their failing to reach their desirable target. Britain did not heed this costly warning, with more repeat offences and a total of 40 towns and cities across Britain last year, Glasgow included, breaching the safe limit.

After 2017’s offence, a few efforts to control and optimistically reduce air pollution were proposed. An upsurge of air quality surveillance around the country is shortlisted to deliver researchers with more evidence; however with the mounting evidence of poor air quality over the past decade all provided by already numerous air surveillance centres, it’s hard to decipher just how useful this will be. Slightly more useful actions have been appointed by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announcing production plans for 10 new low emission bus zones in the capital and a pledge to double the funding currently used to tackle air pollution to £875m over the next five years.

Despite these suggestions, there still seems to be a general attitude surrounding the issue, which is typical for most environmental problems, that being just a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘well not much to be done’ sentiment. Projections of the UK’s NO2 levels were estimated in 2014, which illustrated that areas like Greater London, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire will continue to break these legal limitations until 2030. These results show clearly that implementing a few low emission bus zones in some areas of Greater London is not an effective plan against the country’s offence as a whole. Governments need to fund and roll out these minor solutions across all districts of Britain, not just London.

With such a vast and far reaching problem sweeping the nation, soon you have to ask  ̶  are the additions of some bus zones really enough? The worsening state of air pollution has been linked to the upsurge of diesel car use, which has been proven to cause 10 times more NO2 pollution than large trucks and buses per litre of fuel. Client Earth, an organisation determined to hold the government to their environmental policies, asked that diesel cars be banned, or at least penalised, in city centres, as many cities such as Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have already pledged to do by 2025. However, when the movement of creating a national network of clean air zones and tax charges to harmful diesel cars were proposed in government, it was rejected by the Treasury.

Real and useful solutions are being sacked at government level, and the protests of environmental activists are humoured at best, but soon disregarded. On the 25th of January 2017 it was reported that areas of London are on ‘black alert’ for smog and pollution levels, with levels reaching 197 micrograms per cubic metre compared to Beijing’s 190. This is a problem – a serious one – and it’s time for the UK government to bring environmental issues to the foreground of parliamentary discussions.


Article by Michaela Barton.


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