Last week, Sadiq Khan announced plans to double funding to clean up London's filthy air, and rightfully renewed his concern about the issue by branding it a "public health emergency". But will throwing money at the problem be enough to take action on our pollutant-contaminated air?
We now know that invisible pollution claims the lives of 9,500 Londoners a year. Our air is contaminated with worryingly high levels of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas, and particulate matter (PM), tiny solid or liquid matter which can lodge in the lungs. Both of these pollutants correlate with toxic nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions produced predominantly by diesel vehicles. And while the adverse effects on most people are more insidious and long-term, the effects on those with pre-existing lung diseases like asthma are much more severe. According to Asthma UK, two thirds of asthma sufferers claim that poor air quality exacerbates their asthma.
Khan's plans prioritise much of the promised spending on making London buses cleaner and incentivising cab drivers to switch from old black cabs to new ones capable of zero emissions. The Mayor is right to target public transport in his plans to reduce air pollution, as public transport can relieve traffic congestion and reduce air pollution from motor vehicles. But what his current plans fail to address adequately is how he is going to significantly reduce diesel emissions with hundreds of thousands of other diesel vehicles still roaming and polluting the City.
As it stands, the current proposal aims to curtail the number of diesel vehicles in London by levying a £12.50 charge on drivers of those vehicles, as part of the introduction of an Ultra Low Emissions Charge (ULEZ) in 2019. Although this could mean a 40% reduction in NOX emissions, the charge simply doesn't go far enough to face up to the challenge which we are seeing today; the longer we allow these vehicles to disperse toxic fumes, the less time we will have to undo the damaging effects they inflict on human health. And even once the ULEZ comes into place, it will not be enough to deter drivers of diesel-fueled vehicles, many of whom simply use them as part of their job.
Nonetheless, further action must take place. Earlier in the month, four of the world's biggest cities - Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City - announced a collaborative initiative to ban diesel vehicles completely from their centres by 2025, a move which could see a radical purging of dirty air. And even though their plans are scheduled for a later start than the London Mayor's, they still signal the sort of change which must become a part of Khan's own strategy. We can no longer afford to squander money on more and more clean public transport initiatives while refusing to take the next step on diesel-burning vehicles.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that 97% of all modern diesel cars emit more NOX gas than the legal limit set by the EU. Although the vehicles meet regulations under fixed conditions in laboratories, it was discovered that they emit far more pollution when out on real roads. Despite their wrongdoing, the only car manufacturer which seemed to get a slap on the wrist was Volkswagen, which was taken to court and fined following the infamous 'dieselgate' scandal, which saw the company exposed for using cheating devices to pass emissions tests.
The only way to hit back at these manufacturers would be to put a stop to the use and production of the soot-producing motor vehicles. However a blanket ban won't be easy to implement. Many drivers bought the vehicles after being told that they would benefit the environment. And it isn't the diesel drivers we should be punishing after all; it should be the big car manufacturers responsible for the production of those vehicles. Of course the Mayor can't be held responsible for the government's inaction and lack of backbone on the regulation of NOX emissions. But he can - and should - put pressure on the government, not only to take responsibility for toxic output going unchallenged, but to coordinate an effective end to the circulation of cars, vans and motorbikes which put our lungs at risk.
I sympathise entirely with Khan's attempt to tackle something which his predecessor Boris Johnson actively suppressed while in office. And as a fellow asthma-sufferer, I think that his intention is genuine and that the gesture couldn't come sooner. There are handy websites and apps now which monitor the levels of air pollution - but they inevitably place the onus on individuals to avoid breathing in toxic air rather than the causing factors of pollution. By aiming policy at individuals, this falls short of the drastic overhaul of London's dirty air we need urgently.