London's Air Pollution Is A Shameful Scandal That Has Been Ignored For Too Long

23/01/2018 12:00 GMT | Updated 23/01/2018 12:00 GMT
Illustration: Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost Photos: Getty

In every major city around the world there is now a growing recognition of the huge dangers posed by air pollution. According to the UN, some 3.3million premature deaths are linked to poor quality air every year, while one study has estimated the number of early deaths in the UK resulting from toxic air could be as high as 60,000 a year.

Against this stark backdrop, it’s no surprise that the World Health Organisation has described air pollution as a ‘global public health emergency’. It’s overtaken passive smoking, alcohol and obesity to become the defining public health crisis of our time.

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.

As the Mayor of London, 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.

That’s why, since taking office, I’ve unveiled some of the boldest and most ambitious plans of any city anywhere in the world to tackle poor air quality – and I’m really pleased these measures are already making a real difference.

It’s only the fourth week of January but, for the first time in almost two decades, London has not yet breached its annual legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Every year for the last 18 years, London’s toxic air has exceeded legal hourly air pollution limits by 6 January – and even as early as 3 January.

These improvements in London’s air quality can be partly attributed to the hard-hitting measures I’ve implemented, including the world’s first Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) for older, dirtier cars in central London, as well as efforts to clean up London’s bus fleet and target polluted bus routes with a series of Low Emission Bus Zones.

These bus zones, in particular, are having a big impact. For example, last year the first air quality breach took place on 6 January 2017 on Putney High Street, a notorious pollution hotspot. But since upgrading the bus fleet along the High Street route, and delivering the first of my Low Emission Bus Zones, hourly pollution breaches have been reduced by 90% in just a single year.

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

I now want thousands more Londoners to benefit from breathing cleaner air so I’m rolling out more of these cleaner bus zones over the next few months and nearly doubling air quality funding. I’m also introducing the central London Ultra-Low Emission Zone in April 2019, 17 months earlier than planned and consulting on expanding the ULEZ up to the North/South circular roads from 2021.

These air quality measures will work towards reducing nitrogen oxide (NOx) road transport emissions by around 45% in central London by 2020 and around 30% in inner and outer London by 2021. This means approximately 100,000 people will no longer live in areas exceeding legal limits.

However, in order fully to  protect public health, the government must wake up to the scale of the problem and start taking this issue seriously. 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. I’m determined to keep London at the forefront of the international movement dedicated to cleaning up our toxic air and protecting our climate.

Over the past 18 months I’ve been working with international cities to help bring down the prices of hybrid and zero-emission cleaner buses – the higher the demand for these vehicles the more competitive the costs.

Last December, during my trade trip to India, I announced I will be chairing a new international air quality partnership network with the Mayor of Bengaluru and the C40 network of key cities across the world. This will be an excellent opportunity to work closely with and learn from other global cities tackling toxic air.

Together – by sharing best practice, pooling our expertise, and co-ordinating our efforts – world cities can make a meaningful and lasting difference. A difference that has a profound impact on three of our most precious resources. Our planet, our air and the health of our children.

And as Mayor of the greatest city on the planet, I won’t rest until every Londoner can breathe clean air.

Sadiq Khan is the mayor of London