15 Dec 2017 Story Air

Erik Solheim: Beating the big smoke

By Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

Londoners are used to inhaling poison. In Victorian Britain, the sickly brown smog that blanketed the capital was known as a “pea-souper”, so thick that on bad days it was impossible to read a book. But it wasn’t until the Great Killer Fog of 1952, which lasted a week and killed as many as 12,000 people, that the government finally decided to tackle the miasma that had immiserated Londoners for centuries and earned the city its nickname, “The Big Smoke”. 

London has struggled to shake off this “badge of dishonour”. While air pollution may be less visible today, it is no less deadly. Each day, more than eight million Londoners breathe air that is considered unsafe by the World Health Organization. This means that thousands of the city’s residents die prematurely every year because of the nasty cocktail of toxins that have fouled the city’s air. 

Thousands of London residents die prematurely every year because of the nasty cocktail of toxins that have fouled the city’s air. 

This won’t make for pleasant reading, but the reality is that these noxious gases and tiny particles of poison penetrate deep inside our lungs, permanently damaging our bodies. From Ealing to the East End, babies across London are being born earlier than normal, children are growing up with weaker lungs and adults are more likely to die prematurely from heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other lung diseases as they age. Studies show that air pollution steals an average of two years from the lives of every child born in London in 2010. This terrible blight, which seeps insidiously into our schools and homes, must be stopped. 

Once again, London is in the throes of a major pollution emergency. This time there is a plan to tackle its root causes. We already know what needs to be done to clean up the capital’s dirty air. Vehicles cause roughly 50 per cent of the city’s air pollution. To improve the health of Londoners, the capital must transform its transport system, removing from its roads the vehicles that are spewing out the most damaging fumes. 

This is exactly what London has started to do with its new toxicity charge on the most polluting vehicles. As the previous congestion charge has already proved, this should dramatically cut the number of big polluting vehicles and their harmful fumes. 

London is at the vanguard of a growing coalition of cities seeking to combat the devastating impact that air pollution has on our health, our economies and our environment.

However, this is just the beginning. The mayor has doubled the amount of money the city will spend on tackling smog. He also plans to retrofit 5,000 of London’s older buses and introduce new hybrid and electric buses to further cut emissions. The mayor aims to phase out diesel taxis and invest in electric charging ports across the city as part of plans to introduce an ultra-low-emission zone in central London. 

These are bold steps that will help London hit its most ambitious target: achieving the WHO’s Air Quality Guideline Goals by 2030 – the “gold standard” for air quality. London is the first capital city in the world to commit to this target as part of its pledge to the BreatheLife Campaign, launched by WHO, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air coalition. This places it at the vanguard of a growing coalition of cities seeking to combat the devastating impact that air pollution has on our health, our economies and our environment. 

Over the last year, more than 100 cities, including Manchester, Washington DC, Medellin and Tshwane, have joined the BreatheLife campaign with public commitments to reduce air pollution, which kills about 6.5 million people around the world every year. The campaign gives cities the tools that are needed to clean the dirty air that plagues their citizens. But we urgently need more cities to join the coalition. This is a global epidemic – and many of the same pollutants that harm our health are also driving climate change. 

London’s history teaches us that in crisis there is huge opportunity for change –provided we act together.

Never has it been more important for cities to unite to fight the smog. By investing in cleaner forms of transport, improving the way cities are built and switching to greener forms of power, we not only boost the health of our people. We also slow down global warming by reducing “short-lived climate emissions” of black carbon from vehicle emissions and methane from sources like waste dumps. By tackling the key sources of urban air pollution we also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which persist for centuries and threaten the long-term health of our planet. If the world is to keep warming below the levels set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, then it is vital that cities follow London’s lead and immediately move to tackle the pollution in their air. 

London’s history teaches us that in crisis there is huge opportunity for change –provided we act together. In 1854, British physician John Snow improved the health of millions around the world when he discovered that a single well pump had triggered a cholera outbreak in the city. Now renowned as the father of epidemiology, Snow’s findings dramatically improved water quality in London and, as cities began to follow suit, the world. Today, we already know where to find the sources of air pollution and we already know how to tackle them. It is again time for cities to follow London’s example to defeat this menace. The need to do so is as clear as the air that all of us deserve to breathe.