Yes, Saharan dust may play a role, but the primary cause of our dangerous air is the policy and technology choices we all make
Air pollution is not caused by the weather. The weather is a factor contributing to high concentrations of air pollution in a given area when it fails to dissipate manmade emissions. It can also, on rare occasions, impact air quality by whipping up particles from naturally occurring deserts or volcanic eruptions. But no blocking anti-cyclone ever pumped NOX into a child's lungs. No gentle zephyr blanketed a city in toxic smog so dense you can't see the horizon.
This much should be obvious, and yet it feels like we all need a reminder that the scandalously high levels of air pollution afflicting southern England this week are primarily the result of the policy and technology choices made by the UK and its neighbours.
Speak to people about the eye-scratching, throat-irritating air in central London today and it won't be long until someone mentions Saharan dust or French factories. And who can blame them. The government this week declared the pollution incident was "due to locally generated particulate matter combining with pollution blown in from the near continent - and a contribution from Saharan dust". Media outlets parroted the line, highlighting the role of gentle southerly breezes and the exotically imported Saharan sands.
And why shouldn't they, this broad attribution of blame is, after all, technically correct. The depressingly frequent air pollution spikes afflicting the UK are invariably the result of a combination of factors that sometimes include European pollution and that North African sand. But what is never made clear in the reporting of these events is the precise contribution made by imported air pollution and the balance between naturally occurring increases in concentrations particulate matter and toxic manmade emissions. Consequently, the causes of the very real health crisis that we are all simultaneously contributing and exposed to are muddied and many people are left with the completely erroneous impression dangerous air is either some kind of unavoidable phenomenon we must endure or a short lived crisis to be blamed on Johnny Foreigner.
One thing needs to be made doubly clear on days like today, when personally I'd advise my son and my grandmother not to come anywhere near central London: the air in much of our capital city and many other parts of the country is dangerously polluted for large chunks of the time. A combination of weather conditions make concentrations of air pollution particularly unpleasant on days like today, but even on breezy days the pollution is still being produced, busy roads remain dangerous for the vulnerable, and lives are ended prematurely.
Unfortunately, the perennial haze of noxiousness only becomes newsworthy when pollution levels move from high to very high. But almost 30,000 British citizens are thought to die early as a result of air pollution each year, thousands more have their quality of life eroded, and a recent report put the cost to the economy at £10bn a year. This is not the fault of high pressure or desert dust, it is the result of our cars and factories and policy makers' reluctance to embrace the cleaner alternatives that can tackle air pollution.
Successive governments have failed to take the issue nearly seriously enough. Labour oversaw a boom in diesel cars that was later shown to have dangerous consequences in terms of air pollution (although it has now vowed to beef up action on air pollution if elected through a new network of low emission zones). Meanwhile, over the past five years coalition ministers have often seemed as concerned with identifying loopholes that would allow the UK to avoid EU air quality rules as they have with delivering tangible improvements in air quality.
Where progress has been made it has been too slow and lacking in scale, as evidenced by the glacial progress on tougher emissions zones and the numerous trials in London of clean vehicles that never seem to result in more than a handful of zero emission cars or buses being deployed. Meanwhile, any sense that government is serious about prioritising action on air pollution has been undermined by plans to scale back the network of monitoring stations and lobbying to reduce EU air quality fines. It is little wonder that environmental legal group ClientEarth was moved to launch legal action against the government over its air pollution record.
The technologies and policies we need to reduce air pollution and respond more aggressively to air quality incidents are readily available and have been shown to work in cities around the world. We know that zero and low emission vehicles, car-sharing, congestion charging, low emissions zones, air pollution warnings, and most of all clean and effective public transport works, reducing air pollution and carbon emissions while curbing financial and health costs. We know some cities that take their citizens health seriously have been moved to ban cars and factories from operating on days when pollution poses a significant threat. But rather than respond to a full blown public health crisis with the ambitious measures that were needed the government has instead prevaricated, in the hope that when it comes to air pollution most people will continue to blame it on the weatherman.
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