'Private cars kill and maim' - Commissioner
Dignitaries from Europe and further afield gathered in London to mark the start of the annual Mobility Week on and the car was squarely in the sights of several eminent speakers.
Ben Bradshaw, Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare outlined the work being done by the British Government, both at home and during its presidency of the EU.
"Air pollution effects people's quality of life and also people's health," he said.
"Long term exposure to pollution and from air particles leads to reduced life expectancy and the short term impact effects the most vulnerable in our society."
He said legislation and its implementation as well as technological advances were cleaning the air but there was still a great deal to be done.
"Long-term improvements in air quality cannot just be carried out by technological measures," he said.
"We need to encourage people to think about what they can do to make their journeys more sustainable."
Stavros Dimas, Europe's Environment Commissioner, highlighted the successes of Mobility Week in promoting eco-friendly travel but underlined the entrenched resistance people had to leaving their cars at home.
"The sad truth is no matter how much people complain they prefer the car to public transport, cycling or even walking," he said.
"Everybody hates city traffic. It jams the streets, it makes noise and pollutes their air."
"But private cars kill and maim."
Mobility Week, he said, was all about looking at alternatives to 'business as usual' and learning from the success of innovative schemes implemented in towns across Europe.
"EU legislation has already done a lot to reduce pollution," he said.
"And we hope to do a lot more.
"But sustainable mobility is a vision that requires everybody's participation to become a reality."
London Mayor Ken Livingstone said EU's influence on setting environmental standards had been overwhelmingly positive and detailed some of the progress that had been made in cleaning up his city's streets.
"London's air quality is the worst of any city in the UK and certainly amongst the worst in Europe," he said.
"Pollution and particulates hit at the very young, older people and those with heart and lung conditions."
He described efforts to reduce congestion and emissions by revamping the ageing bus fleet and how there were now more services running on more routes with more passengers.
The city is also setting tough standards for HGVs, buses, coaches and taxis and Mr Livingstone expressed a desire to eventually convert the entire bus fleet to hydrogen fuel cell.
"I'm aware that in this city we consume 17 times our share of global energy and the energy footprint of this city is a disgrace," he said.
"We need to bear down on that and have been pressurising every major new development to reduce energy costs from heating and lighting but also build them in such a way that allows them to upgrade as technology develops."
Dr Michal Krzyzanowski, WHO's regional adviser on air quality and health, followed the Mayor's speech saying it was almost criminal that we know that pollution is a killer and how to combat it, but seem unable to leave our bad habits behind.
"Air pollution kills and is certainly a health issue," he said
"We know the culprit, we also know what it looks like all over the world.
"We've made tremendous progress over the past half century but over past five years that positive trend had begun to stagnate.
"Even in rural areas that we think of as clean, pollution is not much lower.
"The people in the US who live in the most polluted areas have a 20% higher risk of death than those who live in cleaner areas.
"A fifth is a huge difference.
"We should be able to reduce the pollution but not eliminate it.
"We have to keep clean areas clean, we shouldn't try policies that distribute the pollution to somewhere else."
He finished by reminding delegates that bad air quality was not the only price to pay for our dependence on the car.
"Air pollution is an important factor but it is just a part of the puzzle," he said.
"We're talking about climate change, noise pollution, energy cost, mobility, lack of physical exercise.
"These are all big problems."
By Sam Bond