A few hundred metres from the tube station a small, inconspicuous grey metal box sits in front of the lurid green Job Centre Plus. At 10pm on Thursday 5th January 2017 it became the centre of UK media attention.
With 360 days left to go in 2017, the box recorded that Brixton Road had reached its legal limit for nitrogen dioxide pollution for the entire year. Today’s equivalent of one the smogs of the 1950s was in full swing and no one could see it. Thanks to a network of grey boxes like this one, we know that air pollution in our towns and cities is very, very bad.
From stunted lung development in young children to worsening the symptoms of those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, air pollution is hitting our quality of life and reducing length of life. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that between 29,000 and 40,000 deaths are brought forward by air pollution each year in the UK.
With studies drawing links to dementia, the comprehensive evidence of harm requires an equally comprehensive and robust response. Tackling this calls for a range of measures at international, national, regional and local levels. So what can our ministers, mayors and councillors do?
The majority of air pollution comes from road traffic, and the majority of that pollution from diesel.
Road transport is responsible for 80% of the pollution where legal limits are being broken.
But it’s not just burning fuel that causes the problem. In London, where there is good data, 45% of the particulate matter floating around comes from tyre and brake wear – so even if we switched all the vehicles in London to green electricity, we’d still have a damaging amount of very fine dust as a result of all the traffic.
At a UK level, the government needs to commit itself with a new Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act of the 1950s dealt with the dirty coal burning fireplaces, boilers and power stations that caused the smogs of the time. A new Clean Air Act must tackle the modern sources of pollution, enshrine our right to clean air in law and keep – even improve – the existing European legal safeguards.
The UK government also needs to flex its fiscal powers to help people give up polluting cars and opt for cleaner ones, steering the market and industry with it. A diesel scrappage scheme and review of existing tax breaks to account for the costs of pollution is needed. But these measures alone aren’t enough.
Air pollution is a leading public health impact of motorised transport alongside the issues of physical inactivity, noise, collisions and social and mental wellbeing. At a regional level, efforts have to focus on modal shift to walking, cycling and clean public transport and keeping the most polluting vehicles away from hotspots.
While the government pours billions into motorways and strategic roads, leaders in cities and towns are bereft of the powers and financial means to address air pollution (and other) pressing issues that require action at a regional level.
Control over transport needs to be a central pillar of the devolution deals being struck for UK cities and regions – so that authorities can set out to create cycle networks that entice people onto them, a built environment where walking is much easier and pleasant, and a public transport network that is affordable, accessible and, most importantly, useful. Toxic air pollution is yet another symptom of our 20th century transport system, albeit the one that might finally give cause for change.
Public information that both raises awareness of the issue and helps people reduce their exposure is important, too. London’s real-time tube and bus countdown boards now display pollution warnings. But more significant emergency measures during the worst episodes are still left wanting. In Paris and Warsaw, public transport becomes free when the air is filthiest. One commentator suggested the equivalent in Britain was to ask people to breathe less rather than tackle the issue.
Locally and individually we all have some responsibility to raise awareness. Even if we can’t tackle the issue alone, we can take steps to inform our local community. Sustrans is piloting a small project with Lambeth schools, aimed at raising awareness of pollution and equipping people with skills to walk or cycle. The more people are aware of the risks, the more political pressure for change and public support for action. What happens at a local level can build support for what must happen nationally. Understanding the problem is the first step to addressing it.
The small grey box outside the job centre in Brixton may have had its moment in the spotlight in early January, but the signals it continually sends to King’s College have shed light on an issue otherwise invisible to people and our political representatives. In the current political environment it feels more important than ever to defend the science that underpins our understanding of environment issues and for policy to respond. Air pollution’s visceral impact demonstrates its importance.
By April we should have sight of the government’s air quality plans – ordered by the high court. Now is the time to call for a new Clean Air Act that matches the challenges at hand.
Photo by David Holt London