London’s air quality is in crisis. Last month a flock of racing pigeons fitted with pollution detecting backpacks, known as Pigeon Air Patrol, took to the skies in London, and the data they collected released via Twitter. A recent YouGov poll that found 75% of adults in London are in favour of taking ministers to court over their lack of action against air pollution. All four of the main candidates for the London Mayoral elections in May have pledged to improve air quality, but what do the London-wide campaigns and high levels of air pollution mean for East London?
There has been growing concern over air pollution levels amongst Britons since 2014, when the European Commission took the UK Government to court, resulting in fines of up to £300 million a year for failing to reduce the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in Britain. There are a wide range of organisations creating apps and websites to monitor and help reduce the amount of harmful pollutants and particles in the air.
The effects London-wide effects of air pollution are felt harshly in areas of East London. A Central London ban requires heavy diesel lorries to drive around the inner ring road, and channels commercial vehicles headed for the N11 or channel ports through East and South-East London. Similarly the congestion charge encourages drivers to use less central routes across the city.
Sian Berry, Green Party candidate in the Mayoral elections confirmed that air pollution is not just an issue for the city centre. She said: “From the citizen science that concerned Londoners have been conducting all over the city to monitor air pollution in their local boroughs, it’s clear that this is a massive issue all over the capital, not just in central London.”
Liberal Democrat Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon said: “Although pollution levels aren’t as bad (…) in the very centre of London [as in the boroughs], residents of Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Croydon and Lewisham have their lives blighted by poor air quality.”
One of the most common and damaging pollutants found in London’s air is nitrogen dioxide (measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air). It has been linked to respiratory problems and worsening the symptoms of lung diseases. The pollutant is also linked to an increase in asthma attacks among sufferers, and is described by Asthma UK as a ‘trigger’.
The common thread running through all the Mayoral candidates’ manifestos is the emphasis on improving public transport and drastically reducing the amount of cars in London, as well as encouraging cycling and walking. This is no surprise as data from the City of London Air Quality Strategy shows that over two thirds of nitrogen dioxide pollution in London comes from major roads – the pollutant originates mainly from the exhaust fumes caused by diesel engines.
Labour Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan said: “Around East London we have to look at issues like how we deliver additional river crossings east of Tower Bridge. There needs to be a bigger focus on public transport, cycling and walking crossings, like with the plans I support for a new cycling/walking bridge at Canary Wharf-Rotherhithe.”
In the past year there has been a dramatic improvement in the annual mean levels of air pollution. Data released by London Air with Kings College London shows that it is only in the last year that air pollution has fallen to adhere to the EU’s legal air pollution levels in Croydon, Lewisham and Tower Hamlets. But although the data below shows the rapid improvements in air quality these boroughs have experienced,, their nitrogen dioxide levels peaked to double the legal limit on a number of occasions throughout the year.
In 2015 Croydon reached 111 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter of air, , Hackney peaked at 97, Lewisham reached 128 and Tower Hamlets had readings of 130.
A focus for the Mayoral candidates is the speed at which air quality needs to be improved. Liberal Democrat Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon said: “We can’t afford to wait a minute now, never mind 5 years for the sake of our, and our children’s health.”
With this amount of pollution coming from Nitrogen Dioxide alone it’s not surprising the Mayoral candidates are proposing big changes for East London.
Berry has radical plans for reducing pollution. She said: “I will cancel the Silvertown Tunnel and the South London Incinerator, I’ll insist on clean onshore power for the Enderby Wharf cruise terminal and I’ll close City Airport … removing a noise and pollution blight from East London once and for all.
“If I’m elected to City Hall I’ll make it my business to invest in better public transport in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Croydon and Lewisham.”
Pidgeon has followed a similar path. She said: “For South East London the most important thing to note is that I would not support the Silvertown tunnel, or indeed any other road tunnels which would exacerbate congestion at a cost of £1billion and just mean more cars on the roads.”
Conservative Party Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith has pledged to introduce tougher rules on heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), but was unavailable for comment.
All the candidates have strong views on air pollution, but many questions still remain unanswered. Improving public transport doesn’t guarantee improved air quality, as it doesn’t directly reduce commercial vehicle use, which is the primary source of diesel particle emissions, it only reduces the use of private cars. Similarly, abandoning the Silvertown tunnel as proposed by both the Liberal Democrat and Green candidate would not relieve the concentration of commercial vehicles on suburban roads in inner East London.
The candidates seem reluctant to embrace a diesel vehicle ban as proposed in Paris by Mayor Anne Hidakgo. Currently no London politician seems brave enough to openly suggest working towards a London-wide ban on diesel, despite the time scale for the Paris ban (2020) being the same as the London Mayoral term of office (4 years).
Boris Johnson’s senior advisor for environment and energy, Matthew Pencharz said that governments have been incentivising poor Euro diesel engine standards that aren’t producing low enough emissions. He claimed that: “This has left us with a generation of dirty diesels.”