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Saturday, 24 August 2013

The great killer cover up

Britain has some of the worst air pollution in Europe, so why does the government want to scrap air quality monitoring stations?

For a country whose capital city has the worst air quality in Europe, you would expect England to be taking drastic steps to curb the problem of air pollution. However, in a move of almost unparalleled recklessness, the government intends to make changes that could result in the closure of up to 600 air quality monitoring stations.

Ministers want to remove obligations on local authorities to assess levels of air pollution, a decision that could spell disaster for efforts to curb a problem that causes 29,000 early deaths every year. This scheme is part of the ‘Red Tape Challenge’, in which government departments compete to make savings to their budgets. 

What is even more mind boggling is the justification for this irresponsible cost-cutting, as outlined in the consultation document. After explaining the extensive monitoring that is currently in place to assess air pollution, the overview concludes:

“It is therefore perhaps more important that local authorities focus their actions on what is needed to… reduce the public health impacts of poor air quality rather than continue their current focus on local assessment”.

In other words, politicians wish to obscure the true scale of the problem and instead gain some positive PR through superficial measures to green up our cities. Monitoring is there for a reason – to inform and direct action. It is impossible to have an effective air quality management strategy without it.

Justine Greening, the excellent MP for Putney, is one senior minister who recognises the importance of this process. She specifically identified the “detailed monitoring of air pollution” as a means of tackling the problem in her constituency.

The possibility of removing air quality monitoring stations is even more worrying when we consider the lack of political action that characterises the current approach to air pollution.

This summer, the government twice failed on their duty to notify the public about dangerous levels of ozone on 16 and 22 July in line with UK and international law. 

Ministers have also refused to warn drivers of diesel vehicles – potentially numbering in the hundreds of thousands – that they risk legal action by removing particulate filters which reduce emissions of carcinogenic gases.

This catalogue of errors led to a Supreme Court ruling this year that the government was not doing enough to tackle the problem of air pollution. This decision by the highest court in the land could also pave the way for legal action by the European Commission, which has the power to levy huge fines for the government’s failure to meet air quality targets.

What is needed is a total rethink of our approach to the problem of air pollution in our society. Using a comparison originally made by the environmental journalist George Monbiot, we need to make the same fuss over deaths caused by car fumes as we do with cigarettes. Forget passive smoking, what about “passive driving”.

With smoking, it is accepted that people have a moral right to harm themselves through their own lifestyle choices but that this cannot be at the expense of others. Therefore, people falling ill through passively inhaling cigarette smoke is rightfully seen as unacceptable, and this is used as a justification for nearly all government policies to discourage smoking.

Yet what about passive driving? The number of preventable deaths caused in the UK by air pollution from vehicles far outweighs those caused by passive smoking, which at the last accurate measure was 11,000. Of course private cars are not the only issue here – London is particularly badly effected by public buses – but they are a major factor.

The main problem seems to be one of awareness – everyone knows that passive smoking causes lung cancer - but the effects of air pollution on the heart and lungs is not as widely publicised. Perhaps if we could introduce at least some the language of mutual responsibility into the air quality debate we could start to see real change.

There are some positive signs though. Mass-market electric vehicles may also soon be a reality, as the car manufacturer Tesla announces plans to expand in Europe and Asia. The technology is at our fingertips, and there is no reason why vehicle charging stations should not be rolled out across the UK.

The new ‘Boris buses’, which are already being rolled out across London, are fuelled by a hybrid diesel engine that emits three quarters less nitrogen dioxide than conventional models, although some of the mayor’s opponents at the London Assembly dispute this figure. 

Yet, we must not be fooled by short term solutions. The idea of powering cars using shale gas as a way to tackle air pollution – regularly touted by evangelical frackers – is a blatant case of tunnel vision. There is no use having marginally cleaner air in our cities if we are simply going to destroy our planet by exacerbating global warming in the process.

The fundamental point is that none of the progress we need can be achieved if we allow our politicians to ignore the problem of air pollution by closing monitoring stations. It is time to accept that we have a huge problem on our hands that is killing thousands of people.

If cutting unnecessary bureaucracy is what the government are after, how about sacking whoever came up with this outrageous suggestion.  

For a template of a letter you can email to your MP please visit:

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