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Why are we not tackling the UK’s illegal air pollution problem?

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Susan Devaney
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As the UK and five other nations are referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution, Stylist’s digital writer Susan Devaney, asks: why aren’t we doing more? 

I remember watching an episode of The Crown where fictional characters covered their mouths with handkerchiefs as they coughed, uncontrollably.

Suddenly the screen in front of me was trapped in a deadly cloud of fog.

For once, it wasn’t just the working classes who were fighting to survive. It was everyone – from the royals to the factory workers.

From what I could see, the hospitals in London were overrun with bodies grasping for breath. But why weren’t they prepared? Scientists had warned them it was coming.

It was 1952, and what is now known as the Great Smog of London had gripped the capital city in such a heavy toxic fog that no one could see the sun.

Even worse, the events I was watching on screen had actually happened. Decades ago, around 12,000 people died from a thick air pollution that lasted for five solid days. But, 66 years on and that episode from The Crown is not only playing out on our small screens, but in reality too.

Except now, air pollution from NO2 causes around 23,500 early deaths every year in the UK. In London alone, more than one person an hour dies prematurely from a range of conditions such as asthma, emphysema and congestive heart failure caused by exposure to nitrogen dioxide in the air. 

Air pollution from NO2 causes around 23,500 early deaths every year in the UK

And that’s exactly why this week the UK – along with neighbouring countries – has been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution. The five nations – the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Hungary and Romania – had been given a final warning by the European commission back in January.

Now, the European court of justice (ECJ) has the power to impose fine of multimillion euros if we don’t act quickly. Previously, the government’s pollution plan in 2017 was rebuked as “inexcusable” by medical professionals and condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders.

“We have waited a long time and we cannot possibly wait any longer,” said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment, on Thursday 17 May, according to The Guardian. “We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”

As a result, we have until the end of this year to reduce pollution levels.

But, the question we should all be asking is: why has nothing been done?

In comparison, our European neighbours, the Czech Republic, Spain and Slovakia, have all promptly put new measures in place since being given a final warning at the start of 2018.

What is obvious is that we can quickly learn from each other.

Across the world, countries are making change happen – and quickly. Over 200 countries are currently negotiating resolutions on pollution at the United Nations. And multiple cities, from one country to another continent, are being encouraged to be part of the UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign, which aims to meet strict air pollution targets by 2030.

And it’s working. In Freiburg in Germany, an effort to coordinate transport and land use has resulted in an increase of journeys made by bike by a third and doubled public transport use. 

Take note: Oslo in Norway – with a population of over one million – is completely car-free

In recent days there has been chatter about introducing car-free days in London as an answer to the problem. If agreed, this would result in separate car-free days being rolled out across every borough in London this year, with city-wide car-free days being rolled out across the country by 2019.

But it’s simply not a good enough measure, and nor is it justifiable. It would merely be a small step. London has one of the best transport infrastructures in the world. People do not need to own, drive or take a car anywhere in the city. We are incredibly lucky to be able to jump on The Tube, take the overground, hop on a bus or rent a bike for a few hours for a small fee.

Research, carried out by the UK government, has shown that clear air zones (CAZs), where cars are deterred from city centres due to pollution charges, are extremely successful and proving to be one of the most effective solutions to air pollution.

Take note: Oslo in Norway – with a population of over one million – is completely car-free.

The trouble is, we try so hard to predict our own future and align ourselves with our destiny, and yet we fail to see what’s right in front of us. Every day. Toxic air results in more than 400,000 early deaths across Europe each year.

So what’s a plausible solution? Implement a ban on the sale of petrol, diesel cars and vans by 2030. Make our cities completely car-free. And then, give every city dweller an incentive to buy a bike (without cars in the city centre people would feel safer cycling than they do currently) and a discounted annual rail card.

Unlike the Great Smog of London, now is the time to listen to the scientists. The toxins are here, and we have the power to remove them and breathe freely once again.

Images: Unsplash