How your commute is bad for your health, and how we can sort it out

Most of us know full well what a grim commute in London feels like. But not many of us know that commuting may be so bad for our health that it’s shortening our lives. This is because of the lethal and illegal levels of air pollution that blight London’s air each day. In total, air pollution is shortening Londoners’ lives by over 140,000 years every year, or the equivalent of around 9,400 deaths, a figure that costs the economy more than £3.5 billion.

This is a public health problem of the highest order. The World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) tell us that over 90 per cent of all people across the world are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution and that it is now the cause of around one in 9 deaths – four times more than HIV/AIDS and six times more than malaria. In the UK, this figure stands at around 40,000 deaths per year.

These are big numbers. To get an idea of how air pollution is affecting us personally, I gave one of my colleagues at IPPR a CleanSpace air monitor to take with her when she commuted to work (I take the tube). The monitor recorded how much air pollution she was exposed to as she cycled from her flat in west London, down Kensington High Street, past Hyde Park, and up the Mall to the IPPR offices near Embankment.

What we found was shocking. Each day, as she cycled to and from the office, she was being exposed to ‘high’ levels of air pollution. That is, she was cycling through air of such low quality that it was damaging her health, which could lead to serious problems if she keeps breathing it in. Sometimes over 90 per cent of her journey would be through high levels of air pollution. That’s a lot of bad air to be breathing in day in, day out.

As a result, she would often come into work with a streaming nose, sore eyes, and a cough, and this kind of high, long term exposure will take months off her life expectancy. What’s more, her commute takes her via parks and often onto cycle superhighways; those who are cycle along Marylebone Road and Oxford Street, for example, are being exposed to far greater levels. Not only is this lethal, it’s illegal, as these levels break the limits our own air quality laws put on pollution.

So what’s causing this problem, and what can we do? Firstly, this story should not put you off cycling. The biggest cause of London’s air pollution is its road traffic and, within that, diesel vehicles. In fact, the diesel engine is the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, some of the most dangerous air pollutants in the city. If we used less vehicles, by cycling, tubing, busing and walking to work, or switched to cleaner alternatives, like electric vehicles, we’d nearly solve the problem. In fact, our latest report shows that if we phased out most diesel cars in inner London, we’d have brought all but 0.04 per cent of London to within legal levels of air pollution. This can only happen if more of us use clean transport options, like cycling, and if it becomes more expensive for people to drive the most polluting vehicles.

Such a change won’t be easy. Many Londoners rely on diesel cars to get to work and school, or diesel vans for their businesses. This is partly because the UK government has incentivised diesel over the last couple of decades, mainly because diesel used to emit less carbon and so could help action on climate change, and because the government was not aware of how much air pollution was also being kicked out. Therefore, we’re recommending that central government help out with a scrappage scheme, to lower the cost of switching to a clean vehicle. Furthermore, all this would be made easier if the government gave the mayor control over vehicle excise duty (VED), so London could decide where to spend the money – as it stands, none of the VED Londoners pay is to be spent on transport in the city.

These measures could make sure London stops breaking the law by exposing its population to high levels of air pollution. But we think London can and must go further; one of the most interesting findings coming out of the science is that no level of exposure to air pollution is safe. That means London will ultimately have to begin phasing out any vehicles that produce air pollution.

This will not only increase the amount of cycling and walking – with all the health benefits that result – but change the way we think about traveling around the city. Apps that help us do this more efficiently – like Google Maps and Citymapper – and car share providers who are increasingly giving us the option to not buy a car – including Zipcar and DriveNow – are already showing us what this world may look like. It could also mean that we go beyond our current idea of the 9-5 weekday and minimise the amount of commuting we’re doing in the first place. Now wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. He tweets @lesloz

Minutes – inaugural APPG meeting

APPG for Air Pollution – Prof Frank Kelly, Matthew Pennycook, ClientEarth, Westminister City Council – Air pollution

Wed, 7 September 2016 | DeHavilland Report – Event

SUMMARY

Speaking at an APPG for Air Pollution event were:

  • Labour MP and Air Pollution APPG Chair Matthew Pennycook
  • Kings College London, Professor of Environmental Health, Prof Frank Kelly
  • ClientEarth, Environmental Lawyer, Alan Andrews
  • Temple Group, Air Quality Principal Consultant, Alaric Lester
  • Westminister City Council, Cabinet Member for Sustainability, Cllr Heather Acton

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Matthew Pennycook

Opening the session, Labour MP Matthew Pennycook welcomed the launch of the air pollution APPG.

He outlined how air pollution had led to a public health crisis and argued that it was an invisible hazard that had resulted in thousands of premature deaths. He further highlighted the need to evoke a legislative approach to tackle this problem.

He stated that the APPG would play a vital role in ensuring “we encourage and support effective action to take the problem and to challenge government and other stakeholders to be more ambitious”.

Professor Frank Kelly

Commencing his remarks, Prof Kelly stated that air in the UK was not at a sufficient quality and raised the question of who held responsibility. He argued no one had taken sufficient responsibility for responding to the issue.

He attributed poor air quality in the UK to surface transport in cities, with increased volumes of cars and buses running on diesel. People had been exposed to air pollution. The problem was only getting worse, he stated.

Adding to this, Professor Kelly argued that by not meeting air quality targets, a major health crisis had formed. He further demonstrated the problems associated with air pollution on populations, such as a wide range of health problems including chronic diseases, poor lung development in children, and the development of degenerative diseases.

He stipulated that solving air pollution would decrease health problems, decrease the burden on the NHS, and prevent the pass of these burdens on to the next generation.

Whilst noting the 1956 Clean Air Act, Professor Kelly called on the need for an updated equivalent to “deal with this modern challenge”.

Alan Andrews

Next, Mr Andrews drew upon the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive in his opening statement, which established the legal right to clean air, and the right to go to court and demand action on air quality.

Mr Andrews described how a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 led to one of the “most important judgements”, stating that the UK was failing to meet NO2 targets, and that the Government was to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission.

The Government did this, Mr Andrews said, but argued plans did not go far enough and put in place the “absolute minimum they can get away with”. For example, the Government had chosen to focus on five cities, despite air pollution being a national problem, Mr Andrews said.

He further noted a High Court challenge taking place this October on the current plans and was confident it would force the government to make new air quality plans.

In order to achieve change in air pollution, Mr Andrews put forward the need for a “really ambitious action” for transport, including action to switch away from diesel and more ultra-low emission zones in cities.

On the issue of Brexit, Mr Andrews said there would be no impact yet, whilst the UK still remained in the EU, and said it would not affect the upcoming court case.

In the long run, however, Brexit would affect air protections, he said.

He pointed out that under a Norway model, air quality legislation and obligations would still apply. Nevertheless, Mr Andrews suspected that the UK would have a more bespoke bilateral relationship.

He stressed the need for a UK Clean Air Act to safeguard air protection legislation in domestic law. Mr Andrews suggested that there was an opportunity to create a coherent legislative framework, with more stringent and enforceable laws.

He also noted that there was the need for greater coherence between different policy areas when it came to air pollution, namely between climate change, transport, and health.

He closed his remarks stating that a modern Clean Air Act was the start of the conversation on air pollution and public health concerns remained imperative.

Alaric Lester

Next, Mr Lester stated that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs planned to reduce NOx levels had a long way to go to achieve 2025 targets.

He reflected on remarks on how road vehicles produced the most problems in the UK. He pointed out that Euro 6 standards had gone a long way to reduce emissions, but said that these had only applied to vehicles from 2015.

He drew upon research conducted by Temple Group which identified areas of action to reduce air pollution that were economically and environmentally sustainable. This included improvements to buses outside London, mobile construction machinery, motor scrappage schemes, and application of photocatalysts to road surfaces.

Concluding, Mr Lester said that there was an economic and moral case to implement solutions to air pollution.

Councillor Heather Acton

Following, Cllr Heather Acton raised the issue of building emissions in Westminster, which she claimed caused 40 per cent of emissions.
In a wider policy context, Cllr Acton highlighted the need to create a modal shift to reduce emissions, for example walking and cycling initiatives in Westminster.

Further to that, she discussed the need for behavioural shifts, and said this was in the context of an increase in private hire vehicles and services, such as Deliveroo and Amazon. This had resulted in more cars on the road.

Questions and Answers

Labour MP Geraint Davies stated there was a risk of Brexit stripping away legal protections on air pollution. He suggested the Government had signalled moves to look into the distinction with emissions.

A representative from the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership raised the issue of private hire vehicles and the need to encourage such organisations to operate in a more sustainably, and used an example of Uber currently in an electric vehicle partnership.

In response, a representative from Uber highlighted the partnership deal, but stated that the sufficient infrastructure for such vehicles to implement the scheme more widely was not in place.

A number of questions were asked on the need for greater recognition of air pollution caused by the maritime industry, particularly by cruise liners.

In response, Labour MP Matthew Pennycook agreed that it was a problem and argued that little responsibility had been taken on this issue to include maritime industry in air quality plans.

Labour MP Alan Whitehead agreed that the maritime industry did have a role in reducing air pollution. He also highlighted that more action could be taken to increase the use of shore to ship plug-ins, which he said was currently only used by five to seven per cent of ships.

A representative from Friends of the Earth agreed with the point raised by the panel on cutting vehicle emissions, and encouraged the APPG to look into cutting traffic levels, analysing planning laws to ensure they do not increase traffic levels, and devolving more powers to local authorities, such as the ability to evoke emergency traffic solutions.

A representative from Greenpeace questioned the panel on the role of manufacturers and corporations, and the tests could be useful, but the effects of tests would not be felt yet.

However, Mr Andrews pointed out that there was a lack of appetite by the UK Government and other European governments to take on the industry.

Bridget Fox from Campaign for Better Transport demonstrated to the APPG a legislative disconnect between road and rail freight. Whilst rail freight was seen as part of the problem in terms of air pollution, it should be viewed as part of the solution, she argued.

Concluding the discussion, Executive Director of the Environmental Industries Commission Matthew Farrow stated the importance of enforcement for decreasing air pollution, and argued that policy was only as good as its enforcement.

 

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High Court rules Defra’s air pollution plans are illegal

Legal NGO ClientEarth, which was represented at the inaugural meeting of the APPG on Air Pollution, has defeated the government in court for the second time in 18 months as Defra’s plan to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis were found to be illegal.

In the original case over a year ago, Defra ministers were instructed develop and implement policies to decrease the amount of air pollution to legal levels in ‘the shortest possible time’. This week’s ruling has found however that the government’s plan to do so is illegally lacking in urgency.

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The government had announced plans to create ‘clean air zones’ (CAZs) in just five British cities outside London. It has been found this week that this approach would have done little to truly tackle air quality at the rate that is necessary to prevent the early deaths of almost 40,000 people in the UK every year and to bring air pollution in the UK to within legal limits.

Through the process of legal action, it was uncovered that original proposals for many more CAZs were rejected by HM Treasury and that the plans that were drawn up were based on avoiding EU Commission fines rather than aiming to tackle the crisis in earnest.

The government has not challenged the decision and should now propose a much more comprehensive plan to arrest the deadly problem of air quality in our cities. This plan will be agreed in collaboration with ClientEarth and could include a national scrappage scheme for diesel vehicles and an expansion of CAZs into new cities.

The decision marks an important step for resolving the air pollution crisis, but pressure on the government must be maintained if the issue is to remain at the top of the agenda.

APPG on air pollution holds event with IPPR and Greenpeace on ‘Lethal and Illegal’ air pollution

The APPG on Air Pollution this week held a joint event with Greenpeace and IPPR to launch an timely new IPPR-led report on air quality in London.

Matthew Pennycook MP, the APPG’s chair, gave a keynote address to an audience that represented a cross-section of the air pollution prevention community held at the Institute for Mechanical Engineers. In his speech, Mr Pennycook compared the so-called ‘pea soup’ smog that London experienced in the 1950s to the less visible but equally deadly NOx and PM challenges of today and called for action from the government to see the phenomenon as it truly is – a public health crisis.

Mr Pennycook went on to say that the huge social and economic costs that this invisible threat presents to British cities means that nothing short of a new Clean Air Act could solve the problem. The need for a Clean Air Act, he said, made the work of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution more important than ever.

Mr Pennycook’s speech was book-ended by addresses by Shirley Rodriguez, the Deputy Mayor of London for the Environment and Energy, and Laurie Laybourn-Langton who presented the key messages of IPPR’s report titled ‘Lethal and illegal: London’s air pollution crisis‘.

The report, authored by IPPR with support from Greenpeace and Kings College London, emphasised that London was well over its legal limit for substances that contribute to poor air quality as well as the human cost of the incentivised consumption of diesel vehicles. Indeed, the report finds that 96 percent of light goods vehicles were diesel in 2014, for example. Strikingly, it suggests that NO2 levels in London are comparable with notoriously polluted cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

In terms of recommendations to policy makers, the report calls for a fairly radical programme to arrest and decrease air pollution in London. At the European level, the report calls for tougher standards and a ‘real world’ testing regime. Nationally, Lethal and illegal makes the case for VED to be devolved to the regional level and for a diesel scrappage scheme for older vehicles. In London, the report contends that there is a need to expand the ULEZ and tightening the standard for compliance to all diesels, tightening standards in the entire Low Emission Zone with the aim of phasing out diesel buses and taxis altogether and introducing new policies to encourage sustainable transport such as walking and cycling.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution launches

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution has launched and officially registered with the House of Commons. Air quality contributes to the deaths of 40,000 people a year in the UK, has featured in countless EFRA Select Committee meetings, been a major campaigning issue in elections and is an issue that routinely receives national press coverage so although it is no surprise that the group has formed, it is long overdue.

The group was inspired by meetings between Matthew Pennycook MP, the campaign group Clean Air Alliance and the Environmental Industries Commission, an environmental trade body that will be providing the group’s secretariat.

The APPG on Air Pollution will aim to raise the profile of air quality issues in Parliament even further and educate members and peers on the tragic problems of poor air quality and how to solve them. The APPG will meet regularly with experts and campaigners to advocate for a better understanding of the topic in Parliament.

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Speaking to Air Quality News, Matthew Farrow, Executive Director of EIC said “air quality has been a big, big issue for a long time but gradually there has been a lot more attention on it in the media. But, while that is all good, we are conscious that it is a very complex issue – there are many different airborne pollutants and different technology options.

We also felt that there was much-increased interest among MPs and so there was a great deal of merit in setting up this group.”

In an article in Infrastructure Intelligence, he added “I’m delighted that Matthew Pennycook, the Labour MP for Greenwich, with whom we’ve been working to get the group up and running, has been elected as chair”.

Now that the Air Pollution All Party Parliamentary Group has formed, it will aim to generate a work programme as soon as possible. To be kept up to speed with the APPG’s progress, please send an email notifying EIC at info@eic-uk.co.uk and we will add you to our mailing list.

For information on how to join the group, please get in touch with oliver.johnson@eic-uk.co.uk or call EIC on 020 7654 9945.