Image: Asthma UK

Tim Root poses the pollution question for London and other major cities approaching mayoral elections

There were a record number of hurricanes, wildfires and floods in 2020, causing a massive $210 billion of damage globally. It is predominantly poor people whose lives are destroyed by this climate damage. In Asia, damage cost $67 billion, but only $3 billion of this was covered by insurance. Research has shown that rising temperatures have a greater or similar impact to poverty in causing child malnutrition. This is just one example of how developed nations’ carbon emissions are causing devastation in developing nations, whose emissions per head are much lower. However, climate tragedies have also hit wealthy nations including the USA, Australia and Britain, where a month’s worth of rain fell on South Yorkshire in one day in 2019, flooding 1,500 buildings.

London could set the world an example in tackling climate breakdown, inspiring many other cities. This is the action that the 100,000 mostly young people who struck for the climate in London in September 2019 expect. A September 2020 poll found that two-thirds of Britons rate climate change among the top three global environmental problems, giving it the highest rating.

Will our mayor #FaceTheClimateEmergency?

Twenty-seven months have now passed since Sadiq Khan declared a climate emergency, which he has described as “one of the biggest threats we face”. He plans that London should be carbon-neutral by 2030. However, his actions are far from what an emergency requires. The latest figures from his own database show that London’s greenhouse gas emissions from road transport fell by only 6% from 2014-2018. This is despite newer cars becoming somewhat more fuel-efficient, in line with EU standards. Up to the pandemic, TfL estimates that traffic throughout London had fallen by only a few percentage points since 2008 (pdf, p. 92). However, government measurements suggest that it had actually risen by 20%. Guidance from the official independent adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, is that UK emissions from surface transport need to fall by 72% from 2019 to 2035 (pdf, p. 96). London is nowhere near that trajectory. Sian Berry, the Green candidate, has said she would aim to cut London’s traffic miles 40% by 2026.

#ScrapSilvertown

It is hard to take Sadiq Khan’s statements about tackling the climate emergency seriously when one of his largest financial commitments, the Silvertown tunnel, relies on income from continued heavy traffic. He claims that the cost of the “privately financed” tunnel would be funded by charging vehicles to go through the tunnel and the existing Blackwall tunnel. However, this means that the ambition would not be to cut traffic, merely to charge it. The tunnel should clearly be cancelled, as three of the MPs in that area have said. Luisa Porritt, the Lib Dem candidate, and Sian Berry have both pledged to cancel it. If any private finance deal for transport in London was justified, it would invest in clean transport to enable polluting transport to be cut without delay. Demand for public transport is likely to grow as more and more adults have their Covid vaccinations.    

It is above all on road transport that the mayor has powers to cut London’s emissions. Facing the huge hole in TfL’s fare income caused by the pandemic, the bus network is going to be cut by 4% this July. Rather than do this, or cut the planned public transport improvements, the mayor should raise money by imposing a modest charge on polluting vehicles. Road charging throughout 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. The cuts in traffic achieved would help the 99% of Londoners who live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation guideline limit for particulate pollution PM2.5, a third of which comes from road transport. Research estimates that excessive exposure to PM2.5 contributes to 29,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Air pollution accounts for nearly 10% of children’s hospital admissions with asthma. It has also been linked to the more severe impact of Covid-19 on people from minority ethnic groups.

The expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North and South Circular roads, while a significant improvement, is much less than what we need to tackle climate breakdown. Eighty per cent of cars will not pay as they meet the ULEZ standards, which take no account of CO2. It is completely inconsistent for the mayor to do nothing about cars which emit high levels of CO2. What Car has a list of the “best” ten SUVs which are not required to pay to drive in the ULEZ. My calculation found that on average they emit a quarter more CO2 than the average car on British roads. TfL estimates that the expansion of the ULEZ would result in only a 1% reduction in vehicle kilometres in the expanded zone.

Politicians should not be too nervous about road charging. In a survey a year after the introduction of the central London ULEZ, only 11% said it was a bad idea, while 45% thought it a good idea. A poll two years ago found that nearly three-quarters of Londoners support road charging to reduce pollution. Consistently over the past five years, over three-quarters of Londoners think tackling air pollution should be a priority. Londoners rate private cars as the biggest source of air pollution. Sixty-one per cent hold the mayor responsible for London’s air pollution. However, as with all major changes, it is important to consult people about how changes should be made, gaining their confidence that the change can be made in a fair way without problematic impacts on disadvantaged people. 

Green jobs to protect our climate

While Sadiq Khan often quite reasonably asks the Government for additional powers and income, it is he who has the responsibility to spend the funds he can access to best advantage. The £20 million he has allocated (for the year 2021-22) to his “Green New Deal”, announced fifteen months ago, is about a tenth of that allocated to a programme focused chiefly on skills training (pdf, p. 21). It is a tiny fraction of London’s annual income of £487 billion. When there are so many immediate opportunities for green jobs – installing solar panels, building cycle paths, and insulating homes to cut fuel poverty – the Green New Deal should have much more money to provide this employment now. This would be very important for the 464,000 Londoners expected to be unemployed by December, a disproportionate number of whom will be from ethnic minorities. Many workers are needed; only 35% of homes achieve the level of energy efficiency currently considered adequate, let alone the level which would stop harmful emissions. Sadiq Khan has said that “the mantra” for his second term, is “job, jobs, and jobs”. He would deserve that second term only if he took decisive action, cutting traffic pollution to fund thousands of jobs to provide clean air and protect our climate. 

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