In London, the options for owners of vehicles that do not comply with the low-emission zone’s limits have included buying new or compliant second-hand vehicles or fitting conversion kits from companies such as Eminox. Vehicle manufacturers have offered purchase deals and are happy with the extra business. However, SMMT chief executive Paul Everitt stresses: “It’s not only emissions that improve when owners and operators upgrade, fuel efficiency also gets better, returning real-world benefits on top of the LEZ savings.”
Yet, although PM control technology is well established, NOx reduction systems are not. TfL’s Kennedy says that, although no decision has yet been taken on extending the zone beyond 2015, it could cover NOx – provided the government stumps up money for retrofit and abatement measures.
Birkett from Clean Air in London, and environmental lawyer Alan Andrews of ClientEarth, are among those who want public money provided for scrapping and converting old vehicles such as vans and taxis. There is no evidence that the government will do that.
ClientEarth lawyers have been presenting a case that the government failed to show how it would meet EU NO2 targets in 17 regions by the 2015 deadline and refused to consult the public on plans to reduce PM10 in London. In December, the group won the right to seek an appeal against a High Court ruling that the case could not be heard in a UK court.
Andrews says that the Court of Appeal is likely to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU. He says that government inaction means that the NO2 target is likely to be exceeded in London in 2025 – 15 years after the original deadline and 25 years after the European directive was implemented.
TfL’s Kennedy says that London is expected to meet EU PM standards by the end of 2012. The UK government previously won from the European Commission an extension until 2011 and could in theory face fines of up to £300 million per annum for future non-compliance.
Birkett says that the London LEZ is in principle “extremely good” but needs to be improved. That includes opting for a PM2.5 limit and the approach taken by Berlin, where emissions standards two stages more stringent than in London are used to keep the most-polluting vehicles out of the city centre.
“The Berlin scheme has small inputs and big outputs,” he says. A compliance rate of 90% is said to have been achieved through a cheap system of stickers bought by drivers, €40 fines and penalty points on licences, rather than an expensive camera system.
Such a central focus in London, perhaps as far as the North and South Circular roads, would avoid the need for very tough controls out as far as the M25, says Birkett.
Friends of the Earth’s Bates and others criticise politicians for failing to tackle traffic and to confront driver behaviour. She says London air quality is way down international rankings, and says politicians fail to realise that pollution costs the capital and the UK as a whole dearly by deterring inward investment, tourism and other benefits accruing to an attractive destination.
Bates also sees ignorance about the health effects of air pollution. Birkett adds: “Ministers don’t understand this and the verdict is out on whether the Mayor of London understands this.” Birkett wants a national campaign to explain the effects of air pollution and how to adapt (such as by avoiding busy roads) and mitigate the effects – such as by driving less and cycling more.
Yet Birkett is confident of more EU pressure, saying: “I think that the commission does understand the health issues.” He expects progress up to 2015, with the issue bubbling to the surface of public consciousness.
The issue could prove a serious embarrassment for the government and for Boris Johnson in the next London mayoral campaign if the Olympic games – and perhaps the Queen’s jubilee – are hit by very bad air days. A global audience could see endurance events such as cycling cancelled and top athletes dropping out of events, says ClientEarth’s Andrews: “That could be devastating.”
Pollution from vehicles comes at a heavy cost
Nearly 16,000 people a year in the UK capital are losing three years of life because of air pollution, says Simon Birkett of the Clean Air in London campaign. Pollution has an impact on many of those who die from cardiovascular causes. “That is totally unacceptable,” he says.
Although air pollution is less than at the time of the great smog of 1952 in London, which caused more than 4,000 early deaths, says Birkett, it is only in the last decade that the harm from long-term exposure to atmospheric pollutants has become clear.
London’s Mayor Boris Johnson used advice published by the government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants to estimate that 4,267 deaths in the capital in 2008 were attributable to long-term exposure to PM2.5. The advisory committee has estimated 29,000 deaths in the UK in 2008, with an average loss of life of 11.5 years.
Pollution also causes illness, says Birkett. The Aphekom group of scientists showed in 2011 that roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day on average could be responsible in those living nearby for 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children and of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease in adults aged 65 or older.