A breath of fresh air for London

The London mayor's new air quality strategy signals hope for clean air across the capital giving Londoners a chance to breathe easy. Mike Galey explains

When Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced a renewed commitment to improving local air quality in the capital last October, it was against a backdrop of increasing concern about the human health risks of both ultra fine particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx). The Mayor's new Air Quality Strategy looks to reduce both PM and NOx, bringing London down to legal limits of both as required by European air quality legislation.

Observers have argued that the strategy has come not a moment too soon. A recent study from King's College's environmental research group believes that the capital has entered a new era of air pollution. Pointing to emissions from diesel-powered vehicles, the study warns that poor air quality will impact on the 2012 Olympic Games and that London's air is increasingly identified as among Europe's most polluted.

This study reinforces earlier reports that blame poor local air quality for over 1,000 premature deaths in the capital each year, and is estimated to reduce residents' life expectancy by seven to eight months. While the Mayor's proposed strategy is still in consultation and requires details on funding, there are four particularly promising areas that the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) believes will have a positive impact on reducing both PM and NOx.

First, there is the Mayor's commitment to retrofitting NOx and PM abatement equipment to bring the entire fleet of London red buses up to the Euro IV standard. Transport for London (TfL) has already carried out successful trials of combined PM and NOx abatement systems and could fit the technology to around 2,800 buses. However, because funding has yet to be earmarked by either the Greater London Authority or TfL, the question remains as to whether the Government will find the capital required to invest in this commitment to NOx reduction.

Entering a new phase
Along with the bus retrofit programme, the strategy will introduce a new phase to the low emission zone (LEZ) that addresses the growing problem of NOx emissions, acknowledging that PM alone is no longer the major challenge to cleaning up urban air pollution. Two-fifths of NOx emissions come from road transport, and these can damage aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as corroding building materials and affecting human health.

By demanding all heavy-duty trucks and buses meet the tough Euro 4 NOx standard by 2015, LEZ Phase 5 is a positive step in tackling the capital's NOx problem. However, local authorities that have been identified as air quality 'hot spots' and suffer high NOx levels should not wait around until 2015 for the LEZ to solve their NOx problems. There is specific abatement equipment available for retrofit that reduces both PM and NOx levels, and has been proven successful in other high-NO2 areas of the UK, such as the Norwich Low Emission Zone.

The strategy also proposes delaying rather than scrapping the third phase of the London LEZ by two years. Aimed at reducing emissions from vans up to 3.5 tonnes and minibuses, LEZ Phase 3 was originally meant to come into effect in 2010, and would require all vehicles to meet a minimum of Euro 3 PM and NOx standards. By delaying the scheme until 2012, the Mayor is hoping to reduce the economic impact of compliance on the 'white van man'. However, the delay could hinder the UK's ability to meet its 2011 extended deadline for compliance with EU air quality standards for PM.

Reaching Olympic heights
The London Olympic site is currently Europe's largest building site, and is a major contributor to increased air pollution from construction in the capital. The strategy reinforces London's commitment to the best practice guidance - a strategic planning framework for controlling emissions from non-road vehicles on construction sites.

Given that both the Olympic Development Agency and the developers working on London's Crossrail have yet to implement all the recommendations for emissions reduction as laid out in the guidance, the EIC is hopeful that the Mayor's renewed commitment to these standards will encourage action.

Finally, the strategy highlights the fact that NO2 is not just a London problem, but a national problem. It points to the need for a national framework for LEZs and a national certification scheme to approve effective technology solutions. A national certification scheme would make it easier for other UK cities to establish LEZs to address their local air quality issues, and would also reduce the cost and complexities of LEZ compliance for vehicle operators.

Local authorities could establish local criteria within such a framework, setting recognised PM and NOx emission standards for light and heavy duty vehicles based on national certifications. Rolling out national air quality certification would support national air quality objectives while maintaining local autonomy. The strategy represents a serious attempt to address London's increasingly serious local air pollution problem.

However, like all policy proposals that have yet to be confirmed with committed funding, there is a real risk that some of these proposals will never make their way from policy to practice. While there are significant costs associated with implementing London's air quality strategy, the alternative of inaction will incur far greater costs to human health in the capital.

Mike Galey is chair of the EIC's transport pollution control working group

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