Mayor's Office confirms that for the first time in a decade the capital has made it past the first two weeks of January without breaching legal air pollution limits, but major challenges remain
The news of London breaching air quality rules within days of the New Year started has in recent years become a rather grim part of the news calendar for the first few days of January.
For every year of the past decade annual limits on toxic nitrogen dioxide pollution (NO2) had been breached by January 6th, with the rules being broken as early as January 3rd on some occasions.
But this year, something has changed. The first two weeks of January came and went without the embarrassing annual admission pollution limits for the whole year had been breached. And today the Mayor's Office confirmed the limit had not yet been breached, arguing that the wide-range of air quality measures introduced by Mayor Sadiq Khan in the past year were starting to take effect.
EU rules allow no more than 18 hours of very high NO2 levels at any individual site each year. In recent years the cap has been breached within a few days of the New Year being rung in, but the Mayor's Office confirmed today that as of January 15th only eight hours had been recorded across the whole of the capital when London's NO2 hourly average limit of 200 ug/m3 was breached.
Five hours were recorded on Brixton Road, two hours were detected at Putney High Street and one hour at Park Lane, Croydon.
The early results suggest an encouraging trend. For example, in 2016 539 hours were in breach on Brixton Road, but that had fallen to 75 hours last year. Similarly, pollution incidents on Putney High Street fell from 1,248 hours in 2016 to 58 hours last year.
The Mayor's Office said there were signs that policy measures such as the introduction of the T-Charge surcharge for the most polluting cars entering central London and the roll out of green bus technologies on the most polluting routes were having an impact on air quality.
For example, the upgrading of the bus fleet that uses Putney High Street appears to have played a key role in slashing the number of high pollution hours by 90 per cent last year.
However, officials acknowledged that London is still likely to breach the NO2 limit before the end of the month is out. The annual story on the capital's illegal air has been deferred, not cancelled.
In a statement, Khan said that with evidence that air quality could be significantly improved the Westminster government now had to back more ambitious plans to tackle the issue.
"At long last we are seeing some improvements in our toxic air, but much more needs to be done before Londoners can finally breathe a proper sigh of relief," he said. "I've made it my priority to safeguard Londoners' health by targeting the capital's most polluted areas and ensuring TfL have the funding needed to deliver the Ultra-Low Emission Zone and its expansion to help transform London's air. But I can't stop this health crisis without more help. Londoners deserve a Government that wakes up to the scale of this problem and delivers tough new air quality legislation so that legal limits are met all year round."
Specifically, Khan has been calling on Ministers to introduce a national diesel scrappage scheme to incentivise motorists of the oldest vehicles to switch to cleaner models, provide the Mayor's Office with new powers to crack down on the worst offending vehicles, and let the capital access the recently announced National Clean Air Fund.
"Instead of shamefully blocking the capital from accessing the new National Clean Air Fund, the government should be helping me deliver a vehicle scrappage scheme to firmly and fairly get the filthiest cars off our roads now," Khan said.
The Mayor's Office reckons its plans to introduce a new Ultra Low Emission Zone in April 2019 and expand it to all areas within the North/South circular roads from 2021 will further deter the dirtiest vehicles from entering the centre of the capital, cutting nitrogen oxide (NOx) road transport emissions by around 45 per cent in central London by 2020 and around 30 per cent in inner and outer London by 2021. "Approximately 100,000 people will no longer live in areas exceeding legal limits, which is a reduction of nearly 80 per cent in 2021," the Mayor's Office said.
Continued investment in greener buses, including funding for electric and fuel cell buses and plans to upgrade 5,000 buses to meet the latest air quality standards by 2020, are also expected to help improve air quality.
In addition, the recent improvements are likely to have been driven in part by falling sales for new diesel vehicles, as policy signals and public pressure have led to a shift in auto market demand. According to figures earlier this month, sales of diesel cars fell 17 per cent last year while sales of 'alternatively fuelled vehicles' rose 34.8 per cent to secure a market share of 4.7 per cent.
The government is keen to accelerate the shift to cleaner cars and last year unveiled a raft of new measures to tackle road-based air pollution, including wide-ranging investment in electric vehicle infrastructure and green buses, and new plans for a network of clean air zones across the country.
However, the plans were widely criticised by green groups and are currently subject to a legal challenge which alleges they will not bring the UK into line with EU air quality rules quickly enough. Specifically, the government has been accused of not introducing a diesel scrappage scheme to accelerate the phasing out of the dirtiest cars and vans and actively discouraging councils from introducing charging schemes that would help limit the number of the most polluting vehicles in urban centres.
The government did confirm last week that new plans to tackle air pollution from non-road sources would be unveiled later this year, and hopes remain that a combination of tougher regulations and cleaner automotive technologies will continue to drive the shift away from polluting vehicles. Maybe one day soon the annual story detailing the UK's breach of air quality rules could be phased out altogether, not just delayed by a few weeks.
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