Dirty diesel: Time to reinvent our streets

Dirty diesel: Time to reinvent our streets

Caroline with Esther Obiri Darko, installing NO2 diffusion tubes

The Deputy Chair of London Assembly's Environment Committee discusses the government's 'woefully inadequate' Air Quality Plan

ClientEarth won its legal challenge over the government’s ‘woefully inadequate’AirQualityPlan in early November. Its case was that the government must do all it can to ‘reduce exposure’ to air pollution as well as simply aiming to ‘meet pollution limits’. 

This is groundbreaking and an important tool in the fight against the proposed third runway at Heathrow, as the reductions in air pollution from efforts by the Mayor of London cannot just be ‘spent’ on increased emissions from an expanded airport or another pollution-generating infrastructure. 

Pollution levels on busy roads across the UK are higher than EU limits both for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) produced by tyre and brake wear. We know that more than  40,000 early deaths each year in the UK are statistically attributable to air pollution and that NO2 causes and worsens asthma and other lung conditions. There is no safe exposure level for PM2.5 particles, which are associated with onset of dementia and lung and other cancers. 

Much of the air pollution comes from diesel vehicles, which were promoted by Labour in a misguided attempt to bring down overall carbon dioxide levels and that emit more pollution in real life than in emission test situations because cheating car-makers built in unlawful defeat devices. 

It’s cheap and easy to measure NO2levels, so many local Green Parties are encouraging neighbours to measure their dirty air and informing locals about the risks to people living and working on streets carrying heavy traffic. 

As more people learn about pollution exposure and protecting their health, interest is growing in more people-friendly, less car-dominated street designs and in going car free and using car-sharing schemes for trips that can’t be done by public transport, on foot or by bike. 

The silver lining to this public health crisis is that we could take this opportunity to completely change our motor-centric transport system. New roads could be moth-balled and buses invested in, along with more trains and good routes for local trips on foot and by bike.