Standing idly by while Britain chokes

‘Killer air’ represents a public health emergency, writes Eddie Ford, yet the government wants to do as little about it as possible

Many years ago Karl Marx talked about the “metabolic rift” which had opened up between humanity and nature - between town and country - which was a reflection, and product, of capitalist class rule over the workers; of the power of dead labour over living labour. This rift results in polluted, hellish, crime-ridden mega-cities - to the point where the conditions of human existence come under threat.

This was illustrated by the recent ‘killer air’ alert on January 23 in London, when mayor Sadiq Khan felt compelled to warn Londoners about alarmingly high levels of pollution that made the city on that day more ‘toxic’ than Beijing - the latter a by-word for near dystopian environmental degradation. People were advised not to exercise and avoid main roads - not very practical if you have to get to work or have a physically demanding job. We had also discovered a few weeks earlier that within the first five days of this year parts of London had breached annual limits on air pollution - an extremely worrying statistic: it was roughly estimated that each year in the capital about 9,500 die prematurely due directly to air pollution; and, of course, the numbers of people affected by respiratory problems and other diseases related to pollution will be far higher. Naturally, to one degree or another, the grim situation in London is replicated in other cities. The Royal College of Physicians calculated that air pollution across the UK is responsible for at least 40,000 unnecessary deaths every year.

Just as revelatory, if not more so, has been the reaction of the government - which has been to do as little as possible, whilst pretending it is taking action. The government is unable to keep within European Union limits on some pollutants, particularly nitrogen dioxide, which is mostly produced by diesel engines - and they are far from a ‘green’ alternative to petrol, as the original lie went. Yes, diesel cars get better mileage (going about 30% further) and emit fewer carbon dioxide emissions, but they also emit more toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx), which help form smog, and particulate matter, which can severely damage lungs.1

Some 37 of the 43 regions of the UK are now in breach of nitrogen dioxide limits, with one study maintaining that almost 90% of urban areas in the country have had unlawful levels since 2010. According to the government’s very own estimates, air pollution causes £27.5 billion in costs every year and was called a “public health emergency” by MPs in April 2016.2 In the same month, an exhaustive report commissioned by The Guardian - using the most comprehensive set of data yet published - showed that 97% of all modern diesel cars emit more NOx pollution than the official limit, with a quarter producing at least six times more.3 In February, UK ministers - albeit reluctantly - backed tougher European Union regulations, but these still allow new vehicles to emit double the official limit until 2021 and 50% more afterwards.

Understandably frustrated and outraged by this state of affairs, the non-profit making, non-governmental organisation, ClientEarth, has mounted a series of legal challenges to force faster action - or any sort of real action at all. Thus in November the high court, for the second time in 18 months, ruled that government plans to tackle air pollution are illegal, on the grounds that by law they must cut the dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in the “shortest possible time” - judge Neil Garnham stated that ministers knew that “over-optimistic” pollution modelling was being used, based on flawed lab tests of diesel vehicles rather than actual emissions on the road.4

Instructively, documents uncovered during the above case revealed that the treasury had blocked plans to charge diesel cars to enter towns and cities blighted by air pollution. They were obviously wary about angering motorists, with an early general election on the cards. Both the environment and transport departments recommended changes to vehicle excise duty rates to encourage the purchase of low-pollution vehicles - but the treasury rejected that idea too. Other documents showed that the government’s plan to bring air pollution down to legal levels by 2020 for some cities - and 2025 for London - had been chosen not because they were considered the “shortest possible time”, but rather as they were the dates ministers thought they would start facing European Commission fines.


Anyhow, after more delaying tactics from the government - such as ministers arguing that it was necessary to keep their plans secret until after the general election in order to “comply with pre-election propriety rules” - and several judicial decisions in favour of ClientEarth, the government finally published its draft proposals, which were … totally feeble, of course.

Indeed, according to ClientEarth, the plans are actually weaker than those ruled unlawful in November - the London mayor describing them as “woeful” and “toothless”. In time-honoured tradition, the proposals were sneaked out on May 5, when most of the media was preoccupied with the local election results. Nearly all the more radical ideas trailed in previous weeks were unceremoniously dumped by a government solely determined to gain a thumping majority on June 8 - its legal ‘commitment’ now almost seven years past the final date for fulfilment. The consultation period for the proposals closes on June 15 and it is likely that ClientEarth will mount further legal challenges.

As we all know, motorists bought diesel cars in large numbers due to earlier government financial incentives - yet, as government advisors realise perfectly well, the most obvious way of cutting emissions is to end the private car as a means of urban transport and make public transport free. Alongside that there would need to be innovation: hybrid buses, electric taxis, vehicle pools, bringing work nearer through the provision of inner-city public housing, etc. But, of course, that would present a huge political challenge. Leave aside the so-called ‘driver vote’ - there is the hugely powerful car industry lobby.

Unsurprisingly, the government is reduced to fudge, obfuscation and passing the buck. So we read that local councils are “already responsible for improving air quality in their area”, but “will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions” to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while “avoiding undue impact on the motorist”. Meaning that local councils will be required to exhaust all other options before introducing charges for diesel and other cars (as will happen in London), such as removing speed bumps, which force drivers to brake and then accelerate, and rephasing traffic lights - gimmicks more likely to increase traffic and emissions than cut them - and retrofitting buses, trucks and taxis.

The main proposal is to increase the number of ‘clean air zone’ (CAZs) from the currently planned six to 27, which would allegedly cut more than 1,000 times more NO2 than a scrappage scheme (even if that scheme requires old diesels to be replaced by electric cars). But nowhere does the consultation document specify the cities and towns where polluting vehicles might face charges, the level of any charges or the scope or value of any scrappage scheme. But, as most experts say, it is hard to see how CAZs for urban areas would be effective without measures stopping the most polluting vehicles.

Instead, the government plan cites funding for electric taxis and hydrogen vehicles that had already been announced - theoretically taking 15,000 diesel and older petrol cars off the road within two years - and commits only to “exploring” vehicle tax changes to incentivise reduced pollution. The documents also say the government “will engage with vehicle manufacturers on what role they might play in helping to improve air quality” - but even new diesel cars produce far more NO2 on the road than in official regulatory tests. The only conclusion you can draw is that the UK will still have illegal air quality for many years to come - if not permanently - under these proposals. Totally dishonestly, Tory ministers have sought to blame previous Labour administrations for giving tax breaks for diesel cars, yet this is what all governments have done since the 1990s.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, denounced this “half-baked plan” that “puts poll ratings before people’s health”. The “only real winners” were the car manufacturers, who, “despite misleading customers about their cars’ real emissions and causing this mess in the first place”, are “getting off scot-free”. In the view of Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, the government was “standing idly by while Britain chokes”.

Obviously, ‘killer air’ is an issue affecting rich as well as poor - though grossly unequally. Therefore, tackling pollution is an issue that has been taken up by a whole range of opinion. In that sense, ‘killer air’ is rather like the cholera epidemics of the 19th century - especially in London. From the 1830s to the 1860s, cholera cast a wide net of destruction over the city, creating widespread panic and claiming 40,000 deaths. At first, the rich and wealthy were positively hostile to any suggestion of public health measures, regarding it as interfering in the natural order of things, as ordained by god - especially as the disease spread more rapidly through the poorer districts, so why get too concerned about it? Indeed, at the time, some believed that the wealthy were actually purposely poisoning the poor as a form of ‘social cleansing’.

However, as a water-borne disease, cholera is ultimately no respecter of money and due to the city’s extremely inefficient sewage system it inevitably spread - with waste pouring directly into the Thames, which in turn became a giant sewer. Thus cholera was not confined to the poor - and the rich suddenly became enthusiastic for public health measures.



1. NOx is a mixture of mainly nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Diesel cars produce much more NO2.

2. www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/27/uk-air-pollution-public-health-emergency-crisis-diesel-cars.

3. www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/23/diesel-cars-pollution-limits-nox-emissions.

4. www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/02/high-court-rules-uk-government-plans-to-tackle-air-pollution-are-illegal.