London's new Toxicity Charge, of T-Charge, is the latest attempt to bring down pollution levels in the capital. But research shows more drastic action is needed.
Take a deep breath, London.
A startling recent report revealed that every single area of London exceeds the guidelines for a dangerous type of air pollution, in the form of tiny particles that can settle in your lungs.
In the report, commissioned by the charity Centre for London, independent academics have called on mayor Sadiq Khan to do more about the problem, and fast.
“With a larger population than ever before, and an increase in traffic of most types, many of London’s roads and streets are congested, polluting and poor quality places,” says Sir Malcolm Grant, chair of NHS England, who also chaired the report.
This is not a new problem. London holds the record for the worst air pollution disaster ever, the Great Smog in 1952 that saw 12,000 people die in just four days, according to The Lancet.
But it’s not all about disasters; scientific evidence now suggests that air pollution, even at low levels, poses more of a health threat than we previously thought.
The air pollution checker London Air, run by King’s College London, shows air pollution in London tends to be low in most areas, but this does not mean it isn’t dangerous. “When this index was created these levels were considered unlikely to cause any adverse health effects,” the website says. “There is currently debate about whether there is any safe level for these pollutants.”
First, though, it is important to understand how London has become so toxic, and why 7.9 million Londoners live in areas exceeding World Health Organization air quality guidelines by at least 50 per cent.
What is in London’s air?
The air pollution in London comes in a few forms. In terms of gases, there’s carbon monoxide from cold engines or badly ventilated domestic gas cookers, there’s nitrogen dioxide from car exhausts. There’s ground level ozone, which forms when nitrogen dioxide reacts with sunlight and sulphur dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
There are also tiny particles, called particulates, which float around in the air. These are specks of solids and gases, and those found in London come in many different shapes and sizes. Broadly, they are grouped into two classes: particles smaller than 10 micrometres, PM10; and those smaller than 2.5 micrometres, called PM2.5. The smaller particles are the most dangerous, because they can get into our airways, and even settle deep in the lungs.
“Congestion and pollution will only get worse as London’s population grows unless we adopt new policies and approaches,” says Ben Rogers, director at the Centre for London, which produced the report.
What can be done
A better, more affordable public transport system could be one way to tackle the population problem. “After decades of neglect, [public transport] has seen relatively large scale investment, with extensive programmes of traffic calming, pavement widening, tree planting and pedestrianisation,” the report explains. “The capital has invested heavily in its rail services, so relieving demands on the road network, but also in bus services and cycling infrastructure.”
But there’s a warning: “Air pollution, road safety and the cost of travel are all major public concerns.” From October 23, vehicles in central London will be required to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, otherwise they will be met with a daily £10 fine called the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge. This penalty is on top of the normal congestion charge.
The latest report does not think the congestion charge is enough, and outlines that it should be potentially scrapped, or at the very least reviewed. The group of academics put forward a few suggestions for what London could do above and beyond this. The ideas included a cashback scrappage scheme for old, high-emission vehicles, encouraging householders to give up parking permits and starting a new code to help different road users interact better.
The sooner, the better. “London needs action now to preserve economic and social vitality, and environmental sustainability in the years to come,” says Grant.