Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 at the age of 9. The Coroner’s report described the cause of death as severe asthma exacerbated by London’s air pollution. Ella had been exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres) originating mostly from traffic emissions.
Air pollution has a significant impact on health including adverse pregnancy outcomes, asthma, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer and dementia.
The 2022 report on air pollution by the Chief Medical Officer estimates that the number of deaths in England caused by air pollution is between 26,000 and 38,000 a year. Pollution also increases the burden of chronic conditions and hospital admissions.
Air pollution deaths can be estimated by comparing mortality in areas with high and low pollution, but it is impossible to know with certainty which deaths are caused by pollution. Thus, air pollution deaths are usually unnoticed.
The low level of awareness of pollution, and its health impacts, reduces our motivation to tackle pollution and our ability to avoid exposure to it.
Nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 are the two key air pollutants in relation to health. WHO has quantified what should be the maximum air levels of these pollutants but most of the UK is still above the ideal levels.
The recent Uxbridge by-election has reignited the debate about air pollution , with Labour’s failure to win this seat being attributed to resentment against the London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, for his plan to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).
ULEZ expansion to cover all of Greater London is expected to take place on 29 August 2023. Cars will face a charge of £ 12.50 per day unless they meet recent emission standards, as would be the case for petrol cars registered after 2006 and diesel cars registered after 2015.
For regular users of non-compliant cars, the extra cost of £ 12.50 per day is significant, and could be avoided only by replacing the car. Scrapped cars would benefit from a £ 2,000 payment.
According to the RAC there would be about 700,000 drivers in Greater London subject to the daily £ 12.50, payment, plus possibly another 160,000 drivers from bordering counties.
The expansion of ULEZ is necessary but the timescale for this change is too short. The previous ULEZ expansion in October 2021 had taken place after a notice period of two and half years, whereas the current ULEZ expansion is taking place just nine months after it has been announced. Furthermore, diesel cars registered in 2015 are worth well above £ 2,000, thus the scrappage payment would be inadequate for some cars.
Bearing in mind the cost-of-living crisis, a longer notice, possibly three years, would have been desirable. Announcing the ULEZ expansion can bring about improvements even before it is implemented.
The previous ULEZ expansion in 2021 resulted in a significant nitrogen dioxide reduction, though a study (Has the ultra low emission zone in London improved air quality? 2021) has suggested that some of the air quality improvements are actually due to longer-term trends.
Air pollution is still far from the ideal target, despite improvements brought about by various policies introduced by the London Mayor and by the progressively tighter EU car emission standards.
Some of the websites and social media supporting the Stop-Ulez-Expansion campaign present extreme views, with denials of the need to reduce air pollution and false allegations. Sadiq Khan has also been targeted with unacceptable abuse.
We should implement the ULEZ expansion in a sensible way, rather than promise to scrap it, as suggested by a Conservative candidate in next year London mayoral elections.
Lack of support and leadership
The Prime Minister has been equally disappointing. The twin challenge of climate change and air pollution would require speeding up the uptake of electric cars in urban centres. We should also encourage active transport (walking, cycling) or public transport. Sadly, Rishi Sunak is not providing the required leadership and financial support.
Conversely, under this Conservative administration we are failing to meet the climate change targets and there is slow progress in relation to air and river pollution. Sunak thinks that ditching green policies may win him the next elections. His strategy might backfire.