Breathe less … or ban cars: cities have radically different responses to pollutionBeth Gardiner
Thursday 15 December 2016 07.00 GMT
Meanwhile, as Paris suffered a similar pollution episode – its worst in a decade – officials swung into action, waiving charges for public transport and restricting the number of cars allowed on roads, alternately barring those with odd and even license plates.
At the same time Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo joined officials from Madrid, Athens and Mexico City in announcing plans to get all diesel vehicles off the roads by 2025. Diesel is highly polluting, emitting far greater amounts of dangerous nitrogen dioxide and tiny pollution particles than petrol, and can cause cancer to heart attacks.
Despite the health damage it wreaks, governments across Europe, including Britain’s, have offered motorists tax incentives that effectively encourage the use of diesel, on the assumption – now being questioned – that it produces less planet-warming carbon dioxide than petrol.
Doctors Against Diesel, a group formed last week to urge tougher action, says both the national government and London mayor Sadiq Khan must move quickly to protect Britons’ health.
“If you’re going to design something that would effectively deliver a toxic substance into the lungs, you couldn’t do better than the diesel soot particle,” says Jonathan Grigg, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal London Hospital and professor researching pollution’s effects on children at Queen Mary University of London. “We need to get the current polluting, toxic diesel fleet off our roads as soon as possible.”
Last week, Khan rolled out a new system of air quality alerts at bus stops, Tube stations and roadsides, warning those who experience symptoms from air pollution to reduce strenuous activity. The London Air Quality Network, based at King’s College University, said vulnerable people, such as those with heart or lung problems, should consider limiting activity too.The mayor also announced a doubling of funding for reducing pollution. He plans measures including charges for the dirtiest diesel cars entering central London from 2017, an acceleration and expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, tighter standards for heavy vehicles and a cleanup of buses.
But he does not have the legal authority to institute a ban, and has demanded the government take urgent action, including a diesel scrappage scheme.
Cities around the world are confronting problems similar to London’s. Some have been more aggressive than others, but overall, their experience shows that concerted steps to improve air quality do work, and they save lives.
Berlin is a notable exception to the story of the diesel disaster gripping much of western Europe. It has cleaned up its own fleet, installing pollution filters on buses and garbage trucks, and imposed tough rules on heavy goods vehicles. A strict emission zone bars older diesel vehicles, and rates of car use, which are already among the lowest in Germany, have dropped even further in recent years. Public transport is efficient and easy to use, with a two-hour pass costing just €2.70 (£2.25).
As a result, levels of the tiniest, most dangerous particles, known as ultrafines, fell 70% in just three years, says Axel Friedrich, former head of transport and noise at the federal environmental agency, and an adviser to government and advocacy groups. Next, environmentalists are pushing for a plan, now under court review, to require diesel cars to meet even stricter standards to enter Berlin and other German cities, he says.