London air pollution hits a high

Article and photo by Rhys Herbert

A major spike in air pollution saw London reaching ‘high’ and ‘very high’ smog alert levels last week, posing serious health risks for vulnerable individuals. Older people, children and those suffering with respiratory diseases have been recently advised to avoid strenuous activity until the air in the capital returns to safe levels. In France, which recently tackled a surge in air pollution through licence plate bans, the government has reduced all traffic speed limits by 20km/hr in northern cities. Residential parking has been made free in Paris to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

The UK has failed to meet EU regulations on air quality in a number of regions, with London breaking one or more of these limits every year since they came into effect in 2005. 

Air pollution causes at least 29,000 premature deaths a year, primarily due to emissions from motor traffic. Around 4,300 Londoners per year are thought to die prematurely due to long term exposure to air pollution, which can be alleviated by replacing carbon-intensive motor travel with walking and cycling.

A recent survey by Islington Cyclists’ Action Group and Healthy Air Campaign recorded nitrous dioxide concentrations around Islington, and found that in a number of places, they far exceeded the legal limit. They found that the worst cases were on main roads, where motor traffic levels were highest.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK government must produce a plan to improve air quality, after activist lawyer group ClientEarth highlighted its failure to adhere to nitrous dioxide limits. At the current rate, the UK is 20 years behind schedule for these limits. The final court hearing for the case against the UK government is due to take place this week, and will hopefully lead to serious national changes.

Unless meaningful action is taken, London’s recent air pollution warnings are likely to be a common occurrence. Our Space for Cycling campaign calls for the removal of motor traffic on some residential streets in order to encourage cycling and reduce harmful pollution levels.

LCC is a partner of the Healthy Air Campaign, which calls for urgent action on air pollution.