Clean the air

London smog (image: Stu Mayhew (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

While guilt lies with Boris Johnson, Tim Root says London’s Mayor can prevent further pollution deaths like that of Ella Kissi-Debrah

The coroner’s ruling that air pollution was one of the causes of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah has led to various calls for a new law. However, the government has failed outrageously to act on its own law passed way back in 2010. Since then it has lost no less than three cases brought by Client Earth, in which the courts have ineffectively ordered the government to clean up our air. As recently as March, the government refused to incorporate World Health Organisation guidelines on particulate pollution into UK law, questioning the “economic viability” of doing so.  

One of those who bear the guilt for the deaths of Ella and thousands of other people is Boris Johnson. The coroner pointed out that, when Boris was London Mayor, he delayed the extension of the Low Emission Zone for eighteen months. Therefore we should not put all our faith in the government or new laws to prevent future deaths. However, the May 2021 election for London Mayor is a golden opportunity for progress on this issue. The mayor could take major steps to cut air pollution from traffic, which includes greenhouse gas emissions. This would also help a great deal to tackle the climate emergency, an even bigger problem, which threatens to cause millions of deaths both in Britain and globally from extreme weather. Each candidate to be mayor should pledge to cut traffic pollution by a substantial specified amount during their four-year term. They should also make public transport affordable and convenient, and make cycling safe. Londoners should vote only for a candidate who has undertaken to implement these measures. This is the best way we have at present to honour Ella’s memory.

Sadiq Khan recently said “toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children”. Along with four-fifths of London councils, he has declared a climate emergency. A May 2020 poll found that three-quarters of Londoners support “Zero Emission Zones that ban polluting cars from cities”, with only 7% opposed. We need to know what Sadiq Khan, and other mayoral candidates, would actually do to make substantial progress tackling these issues. Total vehicle miles travelled on London’s roads went up by 8.6% in the three years between Sadiq Khan’s election in 2016 and 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available. Transport for London’s latest Business Plan states that the mayor is currently aiming to cut overall traffic by 10-15% by 2041. This is far too limited to match the climate emergency, and nowhere near in line with Sadiq Khan’s target for London to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The mayor has financial problems, largely due to the pandemic reducing TfL fare income. However, the mayor also has various options, as described in the recent report he commissioned on TfL’s financial position. Road charging in the whole of London, at the very modest price of £0.08 per mile, would raise £1.14 billion per year, after exempting electric cars and cars driven by or for people with disabilities. This would help the mayor to improve public transport, keep fares down, and increase payments for scrappage of vehicles which do not meet Ultra Low Emissions Zone standards. The House of Commons Citizens’ Assembly (p. 102) agreed with road charging by a margin of 56% versus 39%. The support for road charging in London should be higher than this, as public transport is a more convenient alternative than in most parts of the country.

Road charging per mile is fairer and smarter than a rigid daily charge to enter a zone, payable regardless of how many miles are driven. Around two-thirds of all car journeys in London are shorter than 5 kilometres. The average driver travels about one-third of their total mileage for leisure, with about one-eighth devoted to shopping. If a charge was payable many of these journeys would be changed to other transport modes, cancelled, or combined with other tasks in a less polluting manner. International research shows that even a modest charge per mile cuts traffic; “it is the fact of having to pay at all that makes a proportion of people reassess their transport options.” 

Young people face the prospect that their whole lives could be ruined by climate breakdown. In addition, children, whose lungs are developing, are most vulnerable to toxic air. Mayoral candidates must know that they would face a huge backlash if they failed to take the major steps needed to tackle climate breakdown and air pollution.  

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