Public awareness key to air quality, finds think tank

Air pollution is Britain’s ‘forgotten environmental and public health crisis’ and raising awareness of the problem is key to tackling it in London, according to a report by UK think tank Policy Exchange.

According to the think tank, the issue of air quality with regards to public health is currently ‘where smoking was in the 1950s and 60s – experts are aware it is dangerous but the risk is not in the public’s minds’, which will ‘take time to change’.

London smog in February 2013 - think tank Policy Exchange held a roundtable discussion on tackling pollution in the capital (Photo: Simon Birkett, Clean Air in London)

London smog in February 2013 – think tank Policy Exchange held a roundtable discussion on tackling pollution in the capital (Photo: Simon Birkett, Clean Air in London)

Published on Tuesday (December 17), ‘Cleaning up road transport in London: The next steps to improve the capital’s air quality’ is a summary of a roundtable discussion involving various figures involved with London transport and air quality, which took place on November 21 2013.

Among the many who attended the discussion were air quality manager at the Greater London Authority (GLA), Elliot Treharne; Dr Martin Stobel from Bosch; Maria Arnold from ClientEarth; King’s College London professor Frank Kelly; Liz Halsted from Transport for London (TfL); and Andrew Bannister from Volkswagen UK.

Attendees in particular highlighted the problem of oxides of nitrogen (NOx – nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) emissions from road transport in the capital, as 63% of NOx emissions in London come from transport.

GLA

Introducing the roundtable, GLA’s Mr Treharne said the biggest challenge facing policymakers was the ‘disconnect’ between scientific understanding, the modelled results of interventions and what it actually achieved.

However, he said that the problem was not funding air quality measures, but ‘finding technologies that will help’.

Mr Treharne suggested that there was a perception of air quality policy ‘being like the boy who cried wolf’ with past measures implemented to tackle air quality not being as effective as anticipated, such as Euro vehicle emissions standards, which are widely perceived to have made ‘very little difference in the real world’.

He added that dieselisation of vehicles to reduce carbon emissions ‘was a big error’ and that the European Commission promotion of diesel vehicles was now ‘penalising London for the consequences of that decision’.

Technology

Elsewhere in the discussion, attendees highlighted the need to look at more than just technological improvements in order to meet future air quality limit values, such as home working and considering whether it makes sense for everybody to be commuting to work at the same times of the day.

Furthermore, it was pointed out that there were trade-offs in promoting air quality as a public transport priority. For example, TfL’s number one priority is safety with the need to keep the city’s ageing transport infrastructure moving coming second, but environmental concerns are below these two.

In conclusion, Policy Exchange said the discussion had showed that the growth of London posed an ‘extraordinary challenge’ for policymakers, with medical science suggesting limits should be tighter while measures to tackle air pollution ‘continue to perform disappointingly’.

It adds that the benefits of air quality are ‘difficult to quantify in the cost-benefit analyses’ used to assess policy measures and that air quality has to compete for government spending with many other priorities.

The report summarising the roundtable discussion is available on the Policy Exchange website.