Hattie Hartman reports from Open-City’s third annual debate which put air pollution squarely on the mayoral electoral agenda
Two simple measures would solve the capital’s air pollution problem: cleaning up its transport system and making central London car-free.
So said a leading academic at Open-City’s third annual open debate, this year entitled London’s pollution is ruining our lives. Can we build a cleaner city?
A precursor to the forthcoming Open House weekend (19 and 20 September), the event on Wednesday night at O’Donnell & Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre saw six expert panelists and a 160-strong audience challenge the capital’s law-breaking air pollution.
Air pollution has always been associated primarily with respiratory diseases. Recent research at King’s College now links it with heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative conditions, and birth outcomes such as low birth weight and premature delivery, according to professor of environmental health Frank Kelly.
‘Londoners need to understand that they are actually being poisoned by the policies of some of their leaders’, said Guardian environment editor John Vidal.
London’s air quality exceeds EU safety limits, and the capital currently faces a Supreme Court ruling due to its poor air quality.
The source of London’s air pollution problem is primarily due to its transport system: 23,000 black cabs, 8,000 red buses, and 62,000 private hire vehicles which are increasing daily through the use of Uber and other smartphone applications. Six out of ten new vehicles are fueled by diesel, air pollution’s main culprit, Kelly explained. Diesel emits nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particulates - 20 to 50 of which can fit on a human hair – both extremely hazardous to human health.
The solution lies in awareness. The fact that air pollution is mostly invisible – with the exception of smog alerts which occur approximately 10 times a year in London – is the main barrier to preventative action, panelists agreed.
While government has effectively tackled C02 emissions and climate change has dominated media headlines, minimal information is available about N02 and the micro-particles contained in diesel fumes. Data provided with new cars now includes CO2 emissions, and it should be expanded to include these other air pollution contaminants. ‘Government acknowledges it has made a mistake on diesel,’ said Kelly.
Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer cited nature as a critical - though sadly often misunderstood – aspect of denser cities. One London plane tree can deliver as much as 1000 litres of oxygen on a summer afternoon, as well as mitigating the heat island effect. ‘Nature is seen as a nice to have once you’ve done all the rest of it. In fact, it’s an absolute essential,’ said Farrer. Farrer expressed dismay that Transport for London has not included provision for street trees in the cycle superhighways currently under construction.
Responding to a question about whether technology could help solve London’s air pollution, Skanska managing director Paul Heather described the company’s push for greater use of prefabrication and off-site construction, as well as use of robots for tasks such as diamond drilling and cutting, as ways to reduce vehicle journeys to construction sites. Collaboration and early contractor involvement are also critical to delivery of greener buildings, said Heather, citing Skanska’s role in Hopkins’ BREEAM Outstanding Brent Civic Centre.
Both Kelly and Farrar highlighted Copenhagen’s success in tackling air pollution over the last decade through a combination of parking restrictions and improved cycle infrastructure, with more than 50 per cent of journeys to work now by bicycle.
ICE Chair Roland Grzybek cited progress made in cleaning up the capital’s waterways through construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel – which will address the 36 combined sewer overflows which currently discharge approximately 39 million tonnes of dilute sewage annually into the river - and the recent takeup of Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUDS) as reasons for optimism, largely driven by the EU water directive. Asked by Vidal if he would ever swim in the Thames, Grzybek was quick to reply, ‘Not without a Tetanus jab and a stomach pump afterwards.’
To tackle London’s critical air pollution, Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates noted that the run-up to an election is the ideal moment.
‘People across the political spectrum now see this is as an issue. Cycling was big at the last mayoral election and cycling and clean air are part of the same virtuous cycle,’ she said.
Two simple measures would solve the capital’s air pollution: cleaning up its transport system and making part of central London car-free, according to Kelly. ‘When people see the benefits, it will spread,’ Kelly noted.
Open House weekend runs between 19 and 20 September.
- Chair: John Vidal, Environment Editor, The Guardian
- Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth, London
- Noel Farrer, President, Landscape Institute
- Roland Grzybek, Chair, Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) London (and Water and Environment Management Framework Manager, CH2M HILL)
- Paul Heather, Managing Director, Skanska
- Frank Kelly, Professor of Environmental Health and Director, Environmental Research Group, King’s College London