The European Commission (EC) granted the UK a temporary and conditional exemption for the Greater London area from the EU’s quality standards for PM10s, small airborne particles that have been linked with a range of health effects, including asthma. The UK has not managed to meet the 2011 PM10 standards (currently written as an annual concentration of 40 microgram/m3 and a daily concentration of 50 microgram/m3, not to be exceeded more than 35 times in a calendar year).
EC Environment Commissioner Janez Potoĉnik said ‘Air pollution from PM10 has serious impacts on human health. That is why EU legislation sets strict standards. The Commission expects Member States to clearly demonstrate that they are doing the utmost, in the interests of their citizens, to comply with the standards in the shortest possible time.’
The Mayor has postponed certain long-term measures on air quality, such as Phase 3 of the low emission zone, so what will the new short-term plan consist of? Banning of certain ‘dirty’ vehicles, at least for a while, could be one element. It should also be borne in mind that the EC is not letting Britain off the hook - they can still refer us to the European Court of Justice at any time if conditions for the new extension are not met. And that could be embarrassing, to say the least. Campaigning group Clean Air in London has welcomed the EC ruling as a way of increasing pressure on the UK to comply with pollution laws. But is Boris Johnson taking the EU threat seriously? Addressing the London Assembly recently, he said he had no intention of upgrading his long-term air quality plans. He believes short-term measures to target pollution hotspots and introduction of hydrogen-fuelled buses will ensure that London does not exceed PM10 limits. We’ll know how matters stand in June - but should Londoners really have to bear a £300 million fine (as well as threats to their health) just because Boris will not heed this wake-up call?
And talking of the Olympics, what can we learn from what was done to clean up air pollution ahead of Beijing 2008? China, the world’s largest developing country, has an increasing problem with air pollution with levels of PM10s being very high in cities like Beijing. The pollution has already been linked with premature mortality and heart disease among the Chinese population.
To clean up the air quality for the 2008 Olympics, China put several measures into place, including an odd-even car ban (based on number plates, cars only allowed on the road on alternate days), suspension on the use of a large number of government vehicles, limiting pollution from coal, and stopping production from the most polluting factories.
Research since has shown how these measures reduced levels of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides, Volatile Organic Compounds, and PM10s by about 50%. The famous ‘blue sky’ over Beijing was, however, achieved at the expense of a fall in domestic product growth rate and, for this reason, the controls were soon lifted again after the Olympics. So, the Beijing experience shows that air quality can be improved, but much needs to be done to maintain such improvement in the face of political and economic factors. What will London learn about air quality from the recent EC rulings and Beijing’s Olympic experience? Time will tell if we can push through some long-term improvement in air quality.