POLITICS
23/01/2018 12:02 GMT | Updated 23/01/2018 12:29 GMT

London Air 'Cleaner Than It Has Been For Nearly Two Decades'

The capital has not yet breached its annual legal pollution limit this month - a first in 18 years.

Air in London is cleaner than it has been for two decades, according to data uncovered by the capital’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The city has not yet breached its annual legal limits for toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - and for the last 18 years it has done so by January 6, and as early as January 3. 

The figures come as mayors from some of the world’s major cities told HuffPost about the unique challenges of reducing smog, soot and other pollutants that threaten the safety of their cities.

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Sadiq Khan is battling to clean up London's toxic air

In a blog for HuffPost UK, the London mayor said new greener buses introduced in a key pollution hotspot in Putney have led to a 90% reduction in harmful emissions, with similar programmes planned for other areas.

But overall limits are still expected to be exceeded before the month is out and campaigners - who suspect high winds at the start of the year have a part to play - say bolder steps need to be taken.

Khan has pledged he “will not rest until every Londoner can breathe clean air”.

He wrote: “In London – one of the richest and most well-resourced cities on earth – it’s shameful this problem has been ignored for so long. It is a scandal that air pollution claims the lives of thousands every year and that children have been allowed to grow up in our capital with stunted lungs, while no meaningful action has been taken to safeguard their health.

“I’ve been clear I will not sit by and allow the status quo to carry on. I believe I have a moral responsibility to act – not just to help those today who are blighted by this hazard, but to spare future generations from the debilitating illnesses associated with air pollution, such as asthma and dementia.”

Khan plans to nearly double funding for air quality and introduce a new central London Ultra-Low Emission Zone - which prevents the highest polluting vehicles from entering certain areas - in April 2019, 17 months earlier than planned.

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Pollution over the capital's Square Mile  as seen from Greenwich

Outside of London, local authorities are being asked to come up with their own air pollution plans, which will be submitted to the government in March.

In cities and towns around the world, car exhaust, coal-burning stoves, factories and farms are among the causes that add to the urgent problem of air pollution ― a risk to public health that research shows is linked to around one in six deaths globally.  

In a new series, mayors from around the world have called on people to do more to protect the air we breathe. 

Although the challenges are immense, mayors across the globe argue that there’s no time to waste. As major cities have become frontline spaces in the fight against climate change and air pollution, mayors and city officials have become some of the most prominent advocates for environmental protections.

The growing research highlighting the deadly and debilitating risks of living with air pollution has spurred many city leaders to launch initiatives and push for new laws to reduce dangerous emissions. 

“The battle against climate change is a challenge that concerns every one of us: It is a matter of public health and preservation of the planet,” said Manuela Carmena, the mayor of Madrid. 

Breathing in air pollutants can lead to heart disease, respiratory problems, stroke and a range of other fatal illnesses, as well as greatly reduce the quality of life for people living without clean air. Air pollution is linked to millions of premature deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization, including tens of thousands in the UK and US alone. 

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London struggles with heavy congestion in many areas

It’s a problem that especially hurts the world’s most vulnerable groups, including children in developing countries like Bangladesh and Somalia, where air pollution is linked to over one in four deaths. But air pollution is also a universal issue that every country must address as an environmental and public health risk, and in recent years scenes like the Eiffel Tower being shrouded in smog have shown that no city is immune to its effects.

Here in Britain, Khan wants environment secretary Michael Gove - who plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 - to take more drastic action to tackle the problem.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who have brought legal action against the government over its air quality strategies in the past, will return to the High Court  on January 25.

“In order fully to  protect public health, the government must wake up to the scale of the problem and start taking this issue seriously,” Khan said.

“London and other cities around the UK need new powers through a 21st Century Clean Air Act, which would enable us to more effectively tackle non-road sources of emissions such as construction, generators and from the river.

“Instead of blocking the capital from accessing the new National Clean Air Fund, the government also needs to deliver a much-needed national diesel scrappage fund to help us get the most polluting vehicles off our roads.

“Action at a national level is essential to cleaning up our toxic air. Air pollution transcends national borders and city boundaries, meaning we need a global solution to a global problem.”

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The Mayor of London said London's air is cleaner than it has been for two decades

Campaigners at Greenpeace said lower emission levels in the capital were a step in the right direction.

Spokesperson Mel Evans added: “But let’s be clear that levels of NO2 are still dangerously high and we’re still set to break annual limits early in the year.

“Re-routing buses from the worst polluted streets has an impact, but isn’t going to solve the problem by itself. We need concerted government and industry action to get polluting diesel vehicles off our roads.”

The organisation has called for the government to bring forward the petrol and diesel phase-out date by a decade and provide proper funding for a network of clean air zones.

Evans added: “Car companies need to let this dying diesel technology go and put all of their investment into electric technology. “

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A Greenpeace stunt sees a mask placed on Trafalgar Square's iconic Nelson's Column

Friends of the Earth clean air campaigner Oliver Hayes, who believes the “windy start” to 2018 has as much to do with reduced pollution as anything else, said the drop in emissions was “clearly good news”.

“However, with the entire year’s quota of pollution breaches due to be used up within weeks, London’s pollution can at best be downgraded from diabolical to terrible,” he added.

“The mayor has introduced several good initiatives – such as the T-charge and the Low Emission Bus Zones – but much more needs to be done. For a start, the planned Ultra Low Emission Zone should be brought forward, apply to all vehicles and cover all of London when it’s introduced.

“Similarly, dirty diesel buses need to be phased out much faster: under current plans, the London bus fleet won’t be diesel-free for another 19 years.”