Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality:

Air quality monitoring: a role for citizen science?

Car exhaust

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes three million deaths each year, making it a bigger killer than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria combined. But while the number of malaria deaths globally has been halved since 2000, and HIV mortality has fallen 35% since 2005, the number of premature deaths due to air pollution is forecast to rise to more than six million by 2050.

In the UK, around 40,000 people are estimated to die each year due to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions caused by exposure to toxic substances in the air. The associated healthcare costs are in the tens of millions of pounds.

Increasing our understanding of air pollution’s impact

The ways in which air pollution statistics are reported and presented can be confusing.  As a result, many people do not always make the links between poor air quality and ill health.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Physicians’ (RSP) landmark report highlighting the impact of air pollution in the UK made a number of recommendations for improvement, including increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring:

“We need better, more accurate and wider-ranging monitoring programmes so that we can track population-level exposure to air pollution. We also need to develop adaptable monitoring techniques to measure emerging new pollutants, and known pollutants that occur below current concentration limits. We must develop practical technology – such as wearable ‘smart’ monitors – that empower individuals to check their exposure and take action to protect their health.”

The pros and cons of compact air monitoring devices

A recent podcast from the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) looked at the potential and limitations of next generation air monitoring devices. The programme underlined that the low-cost devices are a long way from the air quality monitoring stations used by government agencies that have to meet rigorous quality requirements and are operated by skilled technicians.

Many of the emerging devices have not been fully tested. For example, it’s not clear how they will react under extreme temperatures. In addition, it’s important for the operators of low-cost monitoring devices to have a statistical plan for collecting and sharing data, and to be able to interpret the numbers.

At the same time, smart technologies are still in their infancy, and there are some concerns that “the internet of things” may actually contribute to environmental pollution.

However, the NIEHS podcast observed that the compact air monitoring devices are useful for comparing levels of pollution in different locations, and they also have educational value in giving students first-hand experience of monitoring their environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is working with developers of the new technologies to ensure that they meet required standards, and has also developed a toolbox for citizen scientists to provide information and guidance on new low-cost compact technologies for measuring air quality.

The Smart Citizen Kit

One example of these next generation gadgets is the Smart Citizen Kit, a compact monitoring device that measures the levels of air pollution, noise pollution and humidity in the vicinity of a home, school or office. The small box can be placed near a window and its sensors gather and submit data to a website that shares and compares data elsewhere, all in real time.

In 2014, The Waag Society – a Dutch institute for art science and technology – partnered with the Smart Citizen platform to conduct a pilot project using the Smart Citizen Kit in Amsterdam.

73 kits were installed at locations around the city, and participants were provided with helpdesk support during the trial. The project highlighted a number of operational and technical issues associated with the kits. Some of the equipment failed to work correctly, and there were problems in comparing data from different locations. While there is room for further development, the project’s success in engaging citizens to measure air pollution is a strong indicator that many people are keen to be directly involved in monitoring their own environment.

Air patrols

Closer to home, another innovative air quality monitoring device has taken flight. In March 2016, pigeons in London were fitted with lightweight sensors to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the city. The air quality recorded by the sensors was sent to followers of the @PigeonAir Twitter account. The idea was the winning entry in a competition organised for the London Design Festival, and aimed to highlight the dangers of air pollution. Londoners are now being invited to wear the air quality monitoring devices to help build a real-time map of pollution across the city.

Final thoughts

In 2011, a parliamentary committee called for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these.  It’s increasingly likely that emerging smart technologies for measuring air quality may have an important role to play in raising public awareness about the insidious dangers of air pollution.


If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on environmental issues:

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

The positive paybacks of clearing the airThe positive paybacks of clearing the air

World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our livesBiodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

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Photograph: James Carson

By James Carson

As we’ve previously reported, air pollution is an invisible killer, estimated to cause 400,000 deaths in Europe – that’s ten times the number of people killed in traffic accidents. In towns and cities, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from vehicle exhausts are particularly associated with serious health risks, sometimes prompting cities such as Paris to take drastic action.

Since 2010, 16 zones across the UK have failed to meet EU standards on NO2 in the air, prompting a legal challenge by a group of environmental lawyers. At the end of April, the UK supreme court ruled in the group’s favour, and ordered the government to formulate new plans for cutting air pollution by the end of 2015.

As if to remind us of the ongoing presence of air pollution, earlier this year a warm spell of weather pushed smog alert levels in parts of England to “very high” – the most extreme warning that the government’s air pollution monitoring authorities can give.

The British Lung Foundation advised people feeling the effects of the smog in the South East, Greater London, Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands to avoid busy roads during the rush hour, while people with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, were advised to avoid strenuous activity.

In London, a long-term strategy to address the problem of air pollution from vehicles has recently been announced. The world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be launched in September 2020, requiring vehicles in central London to meet new emission standards, or pay a daily charge. The ULEZ is expected to halve emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, and it’s hoped the move will also give a boost to the green economy by stimulating the development of ultra low emission technology and vehicles.

London already has a low emission zone (LEZ), which was introduced in 2008, and the ULEZ will bring in more stringent emissions standards. However, few other UK cities have followed London’s lead. Last December, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called for a national framework for LEZs in the UK, similar to that in Germany, where there are more than 70 LEZs.

Noting that 29,000 deaths each year are attributed to air pollution in the UK, Joan Walley, chairwoman of the EAC, highlighted the potential benefits of the proposal:

“A national framework for low-emission zones could save councils from having to reinvent the wheel each time by providing a template with common core features, such as a national certification scheme for vehicle emissions.”

While London is taking steps towards air quality improvement, other European cities have already progressed well beyond the European Union’s limit values on emissions. Judges assessing the efforts of 23 major European cities to improve air quality placed Zurich in first place due to a policy mix which includes a strong commitment to reduce pollution from vehicles. Other cities achieving high rankings included Copenhagen, Vienna and Stockholm. London also made it into the top ten. At the other end of the scale, Lisbon and Luxembourg finished in the last two places for their “half-hearted” approach to tackling air pollution.

Glasgow, the only other UK city included in the survey, received a disappointing ranking – fifth from the bottom. The survey reported that, even though annual mean levels of NO2 fell, the city did not manage to comply with European limit values. And although Glasgow City Council planned a trial LEZ during the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the implementation was postponed, pending a new Scottish Low Emission Strategy.

The implications of the supreme court ruling are likely to be far-reaching. Diesel cars and trucks could be phased out, and more councils may have to consider congestion pricing, or differentiated parking fees. On the day of the supreme court ruling the campaigners behind the legal challenge restated their belief that all political parties should commit to policies which will deliver clean air and protect public health:

“Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in this country every year. We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the supreme court has upheld that right.”


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on environmental issues – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

Anything but an open road (reducing traffic-borne air pollution)

Action on air quality: sixth report of session 2014-15 (HC 212)

NOx and the city (air pollution in the UK)

Invisible killer (air pollution)

Transport emissions roadmap: cleaner transport for a cleaner London

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Is 20 plenty? The evidence for lower speed limits

20mph

Image from Flickr user Edinburgh Greens via Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week (18-25 May) it’s Walk to School Week – where parents and children are encouraged to leave the car at home and experience the benefits of walking to and from school.

The campaign is particularly important given recent evidence which suggests that the number of children who walk to school is falling. The most recent Department for Transport National Travel Survey found that only 42% of children walked to school regularly in 2013, compared to 47% in 1995/97. Indeed, Britain has one of the lowest levels of children walking or cycling to school in Europe.

A recent YouGov survey of 1,000 parents of five- to 11-year olds in Great Britain found that speeding traffic was the main reason that parents no longer let their children walk to school. In particular, 39% felt that school-run traffic was dangerous. Almost two-thirds reported that they would like to see car-free zones outside both primary and secondary schools, as well as 20 mph speed limits in surrounding areas.

20 mph limits and zones

The introduction of 20 mph speed limits and zones has received widespread interest of late, with a number of large schemes, such as the one planned in Edinburgh, capturing the headlines. The Edinburgh scheme is particularly notable for its scale. It covers over 80% of the city’s roads – effectively making 20 mph the default speed for all of its urban areas. Implementation is due to start in late 2015.

At the other end of the UK, the London Borough of Hackney has this week begun the rollout of its own 20 mph scheme, through which more than 99% of the borough’s roads will become subject to 20 mph limits by October 2015.

The Edinburgh and Hackney schemes join a host of others across the UK, including those in inner London, Liverpool, York, Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton, Oxford and Glasgow.

Support for further implementation

Numerous campaign and road safety groups have called for the greater implementation of 20 mph zones and limits across the UK, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Sustrans, the Campaign for Better Transport, CTC – the national cycling charity, 20’s Plenty for Us, The Slower Speeds Initiative and the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

The UK Government have also shown support for the wider implementation of 20 mph zones and limits. In 2013, they published revised guidance to make it easier for local authorities to implement 20 mph limits and zones in their areas, and earlier this year, new guidance which further supports 20 mph limits was published by Transport Scotland.

There is also clear evidence of the public’s desire for lower speed limits. A recent YouGov survey found that the majority of respondents supported the introduction of 20 mph speed limits in residential streets (65% support or strongly support) and busy shopping areas and busy streets (72%). Improved road safety and children’s safety were the key reasons for this, along with other reasons – such as making our streets more pleasant to live in, encouraging more walking and cycling, reducing noise and improving the quality of life.

The YouGov survey echoes the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, which found 68% of people to be in favour of 20 mile per hour speed limits in residential streets.

Talking of the Hackney scheme, Cllr Feryal Demirci, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Sustainability, Hackney Council neatly summarises the anticipated benefits of 20 mph zones:

“We strongly believe this 20 mph rollout will be better for everyone. It will mean a safer, calmer and more liveable neighbourhoods for all residents, leading to more walking, cycling and playing outside, which in turn will have a positive impact on health and the community.”

Evidence of the benefits

But does the evidence support these anticipated benefits?

One of the most commonly cited benefit of lower speed limits is improved road safety, resulting from a reduction in the number and severity of collisions. There is widespread evidence that this is the case – for example, research published in the BMJ in 2009 concluded that 20 mph zones were effective measures for reducing road injuries and deaths. Specifically, their introduction was associated with a 41.9% reduction in road casualties, with the effect being greatest in younger children and for the category of killed or seriously injured casualties.

Similar findings have been reported elsewhere, for example, in a review of evidence reported to the London Road Safety Unit, in research by the DfT and by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research.

There is also evidence that lower speed limits may help to tackle health inequalities. This is because children and young adults are more at risk of road traffic accidents within poorer localities than in richer urban neighbourhoods. Indeed, in January 2014, Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, went as far as to claim that implementing 20 mph speed limits was the main way in which local authorities could effectively improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

Similarly, research published in the Journal of Public Health in 2014 reported that targeting 20 mph zones in deprived areas may be beneficial. It also concluded that “20 mph zones and limits were effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries”.

Improved public health is another often cited benefit of lower speed limits. Evidence from Bristol and Edinburgh demonstrates that 20 mph zones do indeed encourage increased levels of physical activity, including walking and cycling, and there is also evidence that they improve resident quality of life, through increased opportunities for social interaction and less noise and air pollution.

The reduced levels of pollution also mean that lower speed limits can be better for the environment.

Finally, there is also some evidence that 20 mph zones may result in increased local economic activity – with improved walking environments having many potential benefits for local business. Research conducted by Living Streets in London also found that pedestrians tended to spend more than those arriving by car.

Driver concerns and attitudes

Despite the evidence in their favour, 20 mph zones are not always welcomed with open arms. There remain a number of concerns about the implementation of 20 mph zones, including fears that they may lead to increased levels of congestion, increased carbon emissions, suffer from a lack of enforcement, increase journey times, and increase emergency response times.

Most of these concerns have been countered by research evidence; however, attitudinal barriers remain. In an analysis of a YouGov survey of public attitudes towards 20 mph zones, Professor Alan Tapp of UWE Bristol, reports that a sizable minority of people (31%) claim that ‘If a 20 mph speed limit is introduced, I may not stick to it’. He also points out that 49% felt that ‘It is just too difficult to stay at 20 mph’ and almost a third of people (30%) thought that 20 mph is an example of a nanny state.

The way forward

So despite the progress that has been made, there is clearly still some way to go before 20 mph limits and zones become a fully accepted part of UK towns and cities. Implementing more 20 mph limits is only the start – it seems that there is also a need for local authorities to tackle the negative perceptions of 20 mph zones held by many drivers in order to ensure that 20 mph limits are adhered to in practice.

Sharing evidence of the positive benefits of 20 mph zones and demonstrating that many of the main concerns associated with them are ill-founded is likely to play an important part in encouraging more positive attitudes, changing driver behaviour, and in turn, make streets safer and more enjoyable for children and adults alike.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further information on improving road safety. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

Addressing health inequalities: five practical approaches for local authorities (Perspectives in Public Health, 2014)

Reducing unintentional injuries on the roads among children and young people under 25 years (Public Health England, 2014)

Road safety and public health (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 2014)

Achieving safety, sustainability and health goals in transport (Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS), 2014)

Unlimited aspiration for a calmer city (speed limits) (Local Transport Today, 2011)

Sign of the times (20 mph speed limits in Portsmouth) (Parking Review, 2010)

Review of 20 mph zone and limit implementation in England (Department for Transport, 2009)

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

smoking chimney

by Alex Addyman

The World Health Organization (WHO) has today released air quality data for 1600 world cities across 91 countries. In the press release accompanying the data release WHO explained that:

  • Only 12% of the people in cities covered live within WHO’s recommended air quality guideline levels.
  • About half of the urban population being monitored is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than the levels WHO recommends – putting those people at additional risk of serious, long-term health problems.
  • In most cities where there is enough data to compare the situation today with previous years, air pollution is getting worse.

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