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London’s dirty old problem still hangs in the air. The Green Piece

February 18, 2013. The Green Piece Column.

London’s plans for an Ultra Low Emission Zone-a great idea or too little too late?

According to Clean Air in London the latter is true. The campaign group is concerned that the London mayor’s plans to improve air quality in central London actually (details here) amount to a step backwards on his own Phase 5 of the low emission zone (LEZ5) plans, Boris Johnson agreed to only two years ago.

London mayor, Boris Johnson has announced new plans to tackle the city's air pollution problemOn the surface, it all seems rosy, the gist of the plan sounds appealing. Ban all but the very lowest emission vehicles from central London during working hours by 2020, to cut peaks in air pollution.

However dig a little deeper and you can see why the likes of Clean Air for London and Friends of the Earth aren’t happy.

Firstly, the measure won’t come into force until 2020-five years after EU pollution limits are supposed to be met by 2015. According to environmental law firm, ClientEarth, London is on target to have illegal levels of air pollution until 2025, meaning the threat of EU fines is unlikely to just disappear under these plans.

Twice or three time legal limits

What’s more, Clean Air in London accuses the Mayor of delaying action on air pollution to the point that it will be a problem for the next Mayor elected in 2016.

Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London, commented: “London has the highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas, of any capital city in Europe and up to 9 per cent of all deaths are attributable to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles (PM2.5).  Air pollution is the biggest public health risk after smoking with levels twice or three times legal limits near our busiest roads.”

Smog over London

“London needs one or more Ultra Low Emission Zones by 2015; decisive action to eliminate carcinogenic diesel exhaust; and press releases from the Mayor to warn of smog episodes and reduce additional hospital admissions,” he adds.

Others such as the AA seem to think that the timescale is actually too tight. A spokesperson for the motoring organisation told the BBC, that companies buying fleets of vehicles now need to know if the vehicles would be allowed in the central London zone in seven years and quizzed what effect the new Ultra Low Zone would have on ambulances, fire engines and delivery vehicles (see story).

Tailpipe exhaust emitting NOx and particulatesWithout hard details it is difficult to judge how effective the new Zone would be. There is no mention of what CO2 limit would be in place to determine if cars and other vehicles are ultra-low enough, no details of exemptions to the rules (i.e. buses, emergency services) and no details as what would be defined as working hours (does that include commuting hours?).

On its company blog, ClientEarth labelled the Mayor’s announcement of the plans as little more than a ‘clumsy PR stunt’ (see here) released just as the Supreme Court considers its case against the UK government over air pollution failings.

A public consultation into the proposed Ultra-LEZ is expected but that’s as far as its going for now.

Breathing difficulties

London has long had a reputation for poor air quality, especially since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But it is surprising to see how little things have changed over the ensuing 200 years.

These days the problem is largely caused by traffic fumes rather than from burning coal, but the effects are largely the same. Nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions from combustion engines exacerbate respiratory diseases and are linked to increased risk of heart and lung disease and stroke.

It is still estimated that 4,300 Londoners now die each year as a result of air pollution, with London’s nitrogen dioxide thought to be the highest of any capital city in the EU. On average, poor air quality is knocking eight months off the life expectancy of every citizen in the UK.

What has London done to tackle the issue?

Easily, the most effective measure that’s helped to tackle traffic pollution in the city in recent years has been the introduction of the Congestion Charge.

Congestion Charge zone, market on a London road

Now celebrating its 10th birthday since it was introduced in 2003, the Congestion Charge has encouraged more people to use public transport and those that really need to travel through the city, to choose a low emission vehicle. According to Transport for London, it has reduced traffic volumes in the capital by 10.2 per cent in the last 10 years.

Proposed changes to the congestion charge could see the threshold for exemption to the charged lowered to 75g/km CO2, which would help encourage only the cleanest vehicles into the city.

Low Emission ZoneThe only other really effective measure has been the introduction of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) back in 2008. Operating throughout most of Greater London, the LEZ requires all large vans and minibuses to meet Euro 3 emissions and lorries, buses and coaches to meet Euro IV for particulate matter. If a vehicle doesn’t meet these standards then there is a daily charge to pay of £100 for the vans and minibuses and £200 for the lorries and buses. By bringing in new standards for the LEZ, the scheme could really help to tackle the problem, if a new Ultra LEZ system is brought into force.

There have been some hare-brained schemes, like the idea to ‘stick’ pollution from vehicles to the roads. After spending £1.4 million on trialling the dust suppressant-calcium magnesium acetate (CMA)-a study from the King’s College London revealed that it had not been effective in reducing concentration of particulate emissions (see here).

Other measures have included introducing new, cleaner buses, including hybrid models and introducing cleaner taxis, but so far nothing has been grand enough to really tackle the problem.

London needs a solution quick as date with the Supreme Court is marked for this for next month. Can Boris Johnson deliver a solution? It looks like it’s already game over and all this talk of Ultra Low Emissions may really all be smoke and mirrors.

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Faye Sunderland

Filed under: Green credentials, The Green Piece

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