London’s annual legal limit on air pollution has been breached just five days into 2017.
The nitrogen dioxide (NO2) hourly legal limit for the whole of this year was broken in Brixton Road, Lambeth, on Thursday night, according to specially-designed monitors.
The fresh breaches prompted campaigners to step up calls to ban diesel cars from the capital’s streets, as the toxic gas has been linked to thousands of premature deaths.
Greenpeace staged a protest, using a mask-wearing Mary Poppins to act as a ‘childhood champion’ above the affected streets, to chivvy politicians into action.
One activist today urged the banning of roadside tables for pubs and restaurants, as well as an emergency suspension of bus services on the areas affected.
Under EU rules - and UK law - monitoring stations are allowed to exceed hourly limits of 200 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air just 18 times in a year.
But Brixton Road’s monitor was first to report 19 breaches of the limit on Thursday, recording 347.7 ug/m3 at 9pm, way above the guidelines.
The Clean Air in London campaign said that the “staggering 17 hourly exceedances in a single day could be a new world record for an official monitor”.
The World Health Organisation guideline is also for no human exposure to NO2 over 200 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) measured over one hour.
The UK has been in breach of EU NO2 pollution limits since 2012 and environment group ClientEarth in November won a Supreme Court case to force the Government to come up with an action plan.
The court ruled that Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom had failed to bring the UK into compliance with law “as soon as possible” and said that ministers knew that over optimistic pollution modelling was being used.
The problem is not just confined to London. Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Cardiff and Edinburgh and other major cities are all expected to be in breach of NO2 limits this year - and possibly for at least another four years at current rates.
In London, Brompton Road, Neasden Lane, Putney High Street and the Strand have also reported six, seven, 11 and one breaches of the limits respectively overnight, suggesting the air pollution episode was widespread across the capital. Further breaches are expected on Friday.
Last year, it took eight days for the legal limit to be breached, but 2017’s deterioration is even worse.
Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London, said: “London’s air pollution is worse this year than last, taking just five instead of eight days to breach the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) hourly limit value for the whole of 2017.
“This binding legal limit has been in legislation since 1999 to be met by January 2010.”
Birkett called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to take urgent action to combat the problem, including an emergency suspension of bus services and warnings to the public not to walk on the affected streets.
“When conditions are as bad as they were on Thursday, when Brixton Road suffered 17 hours of exceedances in one day, bus services should be suspended, drivers should be advised not to drive and pedestrians should be warned to avoid the area.
“We need to ban alfresco dining and the use of outdoor tables for cafes wherever and whenever the WHO guideline for hourly exposure could be breached. Emergency measures are needed.”
Birkett added: “Sadiq Khan knows how to reduce NO2 – he’s reduced annual mean concentrations in Oxford Street by 36% between 2015 and 2016.
“So there is no excuse for him letting annual mean NO2 increase in Brompton Road and Putney High Street in 2016 – even after those sites hit headlines for becoming the first to report official legal breaches for 2016 on 8 January. Why was no action taken there last year?”
“With diesel vehicles responsible for 90-95% of NO2 from vehicle exhaust, the only way to achieve full compliance with WHO guidelines is to ban diesel from the most polluted places as four other world cities have pledged.
“Sadiq should match them and go further by pledging to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels throughout London by 2025 starting with diesel by January 2020. It’ll be no harder than banning coal burning 60 years ago.”
The Green Party’s London Assembly Member Caroline Russell tweeted on Friday a video of her on the spot of the worst pollution.
Campaigners are also urging Theresa May to take radical action by reforming road tax, funding scrappage schemes and introducing a new Clean Air Act.
Mayor Khan has promised to introduce a bigger ultra-low emission zone in 2019 and to deploy the cleanest buses on the most polluted roads, but campaigners say they can’t wait another three years for action.
ClientEarth lawyer and Brixton resident Alan Andrews told HuffPost UK: “This is another shameful reminder of the severity of London’s air pollution and shows why the Mayor has rightly made tackling it a top priority.
“It is absolutely essential that he now delivers on his promises and that the national government back him to the hilt.
“While London has the worst air pollution, this is a national problem which requires a national solution. The government’s draft plans to tackle air pollution, as ordered by the High Court, are due in April.
“They must include a national network of clean air zones, which stop the dirtiest diesel vehicles entering pollution hotspots. They also have to stop the perverse fiscal incentives which encourage people to use diesel vehicles and instead help them to buy cleaner ones.”
But the Mayor has repeatedly attacked both his predecessor Boris Johnson and the Tory Government for not doing enough to take the issue seriously.
A spokesman for the Mayor told HuffPost UK: “The fact that Brixton Road has exceeded the legal safe levels of nitrogen dioxide in the first six days of the year underscores why urgent action is needed to improve air quality across London.
“Just today, the Mayor has announced ten additional Low Emission Bus Zones to help tackle some of our most polluted hotspots as part of a broader plan to transform our bus fleet. One of these zones will run through Brixton Road, ensuring that only the greenest buses are used on the capital’s most polluted routes.
“Later this year, he plans to introduce a new T-charge for older polluting vehicles in central London and will be consulting on bringing forward the Ultra Low Emission Zone earlier and expanding it up to the North/South Circular.
“But this is not enough – the Government needs to match the Mayor’s commitment to improving air quality as quickly as possible by introducing a national diesel scrappage scheme, reforming fiscal incentives like vehicle excise duty and giving him more power to tackle construction, building and river emissions through a new 21st Century Clean Air Act.”
Outdoor air pollution is contributing to about 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health claimed last year.
Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, said on Friday: “It’s shocking that pollution limits in London have already been breached for 2017 – this shows the extent of the public health crisis we are facing.
“The mix of these toxic air pollution levels with freezing temperatures pose a serious risk to people with lung conditions and can affect all of our health.”
Paul Morozzo, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “Unbelievably, the government is still incentivising consumers to buy brand new diesel cars that are pumping out illegal levels of pollution.
“If cars coming off the production line had dodgy brakes, you know the government would step in to sort it out. We urgently need to stop the sale of new diesel models until emission testing is truly fit for purpose. Better still, we need car companies to phase out diesel completely and concentrate on hybrid and electric alternatives.”