On October 16th, 2013 the “No to Silvertown Tunnel” campaign held a public meeting at The Forum in Greenwich to announce the results of our NO2 air pollution monitoring experiment. The following post features transcripts, slides and video from that meeting.
Chris Taylor: And to follow on from that, regarding clean air and the effects of clean air on people, we have Simon Birkett with us. Simon’s the founding director of Clean Air in London, and he’s spent more than seven years campaigning against poor air quality, and he’s with us tonight to update us on the 2013 Year of Air. Was anyone aware that this is the European Commission’s Year of Air? No? Not many people, I don’t think, unfortunately. And also we’ll hear how London, how the UK are faring meeting their standards.
Simon Birkett, Clean Air in London
Thanks very much, Chris, and thank you all for inviting me.
Yes, 2013 is the European Commission’s Year of Air, which means that they’re going to come up with a package of proposals probably in early December. Commissioner Potočnik, who’s the Environment Commissioner, gave us a bit of a preview of that yesterday, which I’ll share with you.
As Ian said, we’re worried about particles and gases, and within the gases component of air pollution there’s really only one molecule which is regulated, which is nitrogen dioxide. So there’s all the gases in the gases bit of air pollution, but there’s just this one molecule which is regulated, and for which there are World Health Organisation guidelines. And that’s important, because when the Mayor and others say ‘well, I’m not that worried about nitrogen dioxide’, they’re trying to single out one molecule in this whole gases component, and we need to look at nitrogen dioxide as being an indicator of all those gases, but also of the very fine particles which it tends to bounce back and forwards between.
Last week, the UK published its results for 2012, and what that showed was that, broadly speaking, air pollution near the busiest roads in London is twice World Health Organisation guideline levels and legal limits. And London again is the most polluted capital city in Europe for nitrogen dioxide. For the particles, some of the Eastern European cities which are surrounded by coal-fired power stations are worse, but for the air pollution gases London is the worst. So it’s absolutely not right to say that we’re in this with a whole bunch of others. We are the worst, and it’s probably because of the vast number of diesel vehicles: we’ve got 8,500 buses, 22,000 taxis, etc.
The government only admits to having 230,000 people in London exceeding the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide, and that’s at background locations and they steadfastly refuse to say what the number is near the busy roads that Ian highlighted. But this nitrogen dioxide problem is not going away. We’ve actually seen the data last week show that over the last 15 years, the long-running urban roadside air pollution monitors have shown no increase or reduction – importantly no reduction – in the levels of nitrogen dioxide. So this problem has been around and has been pretty static for about 15 years near the busy roads, and in part that’s because the government has – successive governments have – failed to control diesel exhausts. So we’ve now got about 50% market share of diesel vehicles, against about 10% ten years ago.
Now, within Greenwich, there’s an app which Clean Air in London have produced, called the Clean Air in Cities app. Using the government’s own statistics, as at today, 7.2% of all deaths in Greenwich are attributable to long-term exposure to air pollution, that’s just human-made pollution. 93 deaths so far this year, and population weighting levels of the particles, which we’re also concerned about, are about 40% above the World Health Organisation guideline. So be in no doubt that this is a big problem: air pollution.
The very good news, is that – there are several bits of very good news – but the first bit of good news is that there are very very powerful laws in place to protect people. They may be breached by a country mile – by a factor of two – but actually the fact that they’re breached does not give the Mayor or others carte blanche to keep breaching them. The European Commission will we hope start infraction action, legal action against the UK in the next few months. Client Earth has won a case at the Supreme Court, and that’s been referred to the European courts to try and enforce these laws in the UK as well as asking the European Commission to help us.
Those laws are very very important. You only have to find one spot that is below this legal limit of 40 micro grammes per cubic metre, and it cannot go above that 40 level. Last week I submitted a nineteen-page letter of complaint to the European Commission about the removal of the M4 bus lane, because guess what? They remove the M4 bus lane, which Sian will object to, I’ll probably object to, but in air pollution terms my biggest objection to it was that they made not one single effort to mitigate the shift in diesel pollution from the outside lane to the inside lane, close to houses. They made no effort to mitigate the increased air pollution for many hundreds of people near that M4. And what I highlighted in particular, is that there were 35 locations, 35 houses where pollution was going from below this legal limit to above it. That is an absolute black-and-white breach of European law, which is totally unacceptable and Clean Air in London has asked the European Commission to investigate.
Now people are getting the message about this. I do a lot of work now – you may have seen me on TV, I do a lot of radio interviews, and there is no doubt talking to those media presenters that the tone has shifted. People are no longer asking ‘is this a problem?’ Clean Air in London published details of diesel exhaust on 40,000 road links in London that it obtained from the Mayor. And all the questions the media are asking are ‘what are we going to do about this problem? Who’s going to sort it and when?’
And the top three solutions from Clean Air in London, which I told the BBC about a month ago, were: first, we need to catch up with Berlin, which banned the oldest diesel vehicles, in fact nearly four years ago. Second, we need to give taxi drivers choice. Currently the Mayor forces taxi drivers to buy one or other of two diesel vehicles. We need to allow taxi drivers to buy smaller petrol vehicles. And we need to retrofit filters to thousands of London buses, not just a few hundred as the Mayor proposes. And what you should all be asking, I would suggest, is why are you in Greenwich not getting cleaner buses, which is what for example Putney’s got by making a fuss about air pollution. Why aren’t you getting it? Why aren’t we getting it in Central London?
The Mayor’s got really a very appalling track record on air pollution, and in particular – by the way, Clean Air in London is a cross-party campaign, it’s very rude about the previous government, so it’s very even-handed! – but the Mayor has faults in two areas, I would say. So I would not trust him to say that he’ll do something to sort it out. He’s pursued vanity projects, like the Boris Buses and things, if you look at his bicycles, they’re hugely over-engineered, they’re sort of like Rolls Royces – much more expensive than the comparable systems that you’ll see if you go to Brussels or anything like that. And the ‘airline’ [Emirates airline: cable car from North Greenwich to the royal docks] I think we’d all agree is a joke.
But he’s also taken backwards steps on key measures like delaying phase three of the Low Emission Zone, scrapping the westward extension of the congestion charge; you cannot trust him to tackle road transport problems. The government of course is even worse. I’d characterise some of the senior cabinet ministers as free market anarchists, who wanted to make changes to the local air quality management system recently, which many of us opposed, which would result in the scrapping of all monitoring of local air pollution across the whole of England. It’s just unbelievable what they’re proposing. They don’t want to have anything to do with this problem; they want to brush it under the carpet.
Now the last thing I’ll say is that – I think Chris said it very well – it’s lovely to say ‘let’s have a bridge’ or ‘let’s have a ferry’ at Gallions Reach or wherever it is; let’s have these lovely things and with the wave of a wand it’ll solve all our problems. We’ll have the existing traffic and much more space. Well, that’s a nice bit of spin. But I’m very persuaded by the evidence you’ll hear from John and others that what happens is, you build these things and they fill up.
And you end up with more traffic than you actually had to start with. So it doesn’t reduce the problem, it actually makes it worse.
And I think what we need is that those who are in favour of river crossings – and there may be a way to do them – have to be honest about how they’re going to mitigate the increases in air pollution that will arrive with these crossings. So they talk vaguely about road pricing or they’ll consider Low Emission Zones or something like that. They absolutely need to be pinned down. They can’t have it both ways; they can’t say ‘we’ll have a river crossing’ and ‘we’ll deal with the problems later.’ They must be open and honest about how they will mitigate the additional traffic that will pour into those crossings. And if they did that, and told people up and down the next five bridges into Central London that they’ll all be paying tolls in order not to shift the traffic from a tolled bridge here to non-tolled bridges further in, then I think there’s be a lot fewer people in favour of new river crossings.
So what we need is bold action, particularly to eliminate diesel exhaust from the most polluted places by 2020 – that’s the Clean Air in London vision. We need to get the Mayor and the other politicians behind this, and I think if we do that, through a mixture of political will, behavioural change and technology, we really can show the whole world how London can lead the way as it did sixty years ago in tackling air pollution. We are the only mega-city in Europe: if we can crack this problem, we really will do something special and I look forward to that opportunity. Thank you.
“No to Silvertown Tunnel” would like to thank Simon Birkett for taking the time to come to Greenwich and discuss issues of air quality with us.
Subsequent posts will feature the remainder of the meeting and presentations from John Elliot, Sian Berry and Andrew Wood, along with the public Q&A session.