EditorialTue 18 Sep 2018 18.30 BST
As evidence about the harmful effects of pollution mounts, mayors need to take action to reduce emissions and improve health
The slogan “Think global, act local”, popular among environmentalists since the 1970s, is apt when applied to the politics of air. While pollution by greenhouse gases, chiefly CO2, requires international action, some emissions can be tackled much closer to home. Evidence about the health impact of the gases and particles produced by road traffic, industry and open fires has developed rapidly since the 1990s. In cities, many of which have experienced rapid growth in traffic, air quality has become a pressing issue.
Across the EU, legal limits are regularly breached, and the UK, France and Germany are among six countries facing large fines. Until Michael Gove publishes his environment bill there remains uncertainty over the teeth the watchdog will have when it comes to enforcing the rules after Brexit. But it is not clear whether the genie of public anxiety about toxic air can be pushed back into the bottle. This week saw reports about new research into the amount of particulate matter breathed by children at London schools, and pollutants found in mothers’ placentas. Last month it was revealed that Chinese researchers have linked high levels of air pollution to reduced intelligence.
New clean air zones in London and Birmingham, including charges for the most polluting vehicles, start their rollout next year (two other cities, Southampton and Derby, have been ticked off by the government for missing a deadline for proposals). Such schemes represent a milestone in efforts to limit nitrogen oxide pollution from diesel vehicles after the still-unfolding emissions-cheating scandal. This weekend will see the closure of 50 roads for the capital’s first “car-free day”, an initiative campaigners hope will soon be scaled up to match more ambitious schemes in cities including Brussels and Paris.
What happens next depends on public opinion as well as government. Parents are increasingly worried about the health of their children. Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who believes air pollution killed her daughter Ella, wants to argue the case in a new inquest. On the other side of the argument are those concerned about the impact of charges. In Birmingham, these include businesses supplying parts to the local automotive industry. In London, Westminster city council has opposed schemes it says penalise its residents, and last week inflicted a defeat on the mayor in the high court. No politician is likely to forget the saga of the London congestion zone’s western extension, which lasted only a year before being scrapped.
The situation is complicated because vehicle emissions and air pollution, while closely linked to congestion, are not the same thing. Urban transport is a political question and dirty air is not the only reason many people would like to see traffic reduced. Others include road safety, noise, and the belief that public transport, bicycles and pedestrians should take priority over private cars – even electric ones. On the other side, many people are attached to their cars and see driving as their right and an economic necessity.
Were it not for the obstructive policies pursued by Boris Johnson, London would be further ahead than it is. Birmingham and Manchester are catching up. The obesity crisis as well as air pollution and congestion means the direction of travel – towards healthier and more active lifestyles, and less traffic – should be clear. Per-mile road pricing was looked at by Mr Khan last year and remains under review. Whether by this route or another, cities and their leaders must find a way through.