Smoke on the water – that’s a reference to a 1970s prog rock song isn’t it? Yes, but more importantly a reference to the quality of our air in Southampton. We associate air pollution with places like Beijing and Delhi, but in 2014 Southampton was ranked as one of the 10 worst cities in the UK for air quality.
But we don’t have smog in Southampton anymore – it can’t be that bad? The most prominent air pollutants are tiny particles smaller than the width of human hair (referred to as PM10 and PM2.5). This ‘invisible dust’ is not only the cause of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses but also cancer. The World Health Organisation has also just declared a global “public health emergency” due to the effects of polluted air.
Each year it is estimated that 110 people die prematurely in Southampton, due to particulate matter from vehicle emissions. But as shocking as this figure is, it only paints half the picture, as it does not factor in the deadly effects of nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Do you mean laughing gas? No, that’s nitrous oxide. We are talking about the noxious gases at the centre of last year’s ‘dieselgate’ story, which uncovered cheating during emissions testing of Volkswagen diesel engines. These vehicles actually emit up to 40 times the amount of NOx allowed by U.S. law. But every cloud has a silver lining, even the heavy black one hanging over this particular scandal: it has raised public awareness of lethal air pollution from motorised transport.
How bad is it? Very. The UK government’s committee on the medical effects of air pollution (COMEAP) is currently working on accurate figures for deaths from nitrogen dioxide (NO2), but Defra estimates that 23,500 people die each year in the UK due its effects. This means that annual deaths in Southampton from air pollution could actually be in the region of 200. To put this number into context, 2 people died each year in road traffic accidents between 2010-2012.
Aren’t there legal limits on vehicle emissions? Yes, but in 2013 almost 200 local authorities in England and Wales, including Southampton, exceeded the average annual limit for NO2. In fact maximum hourly concentrations in the UK can reach up to 3-4 times the legal limit. And in London it only took the first 8 days in 2016 for the air pollution to exceed the legal limit for the whole year.
What is the UK Government doing about this? Good question. It agrees that ‘these days, the major threat to clean air is now posed by traffic emissions’ whilst at the same time wanting to relax limits on air pollution. Government papers reveal a desire to allow car manufacturers to ‘far exceed the nitrogen oxides (NOx) limit of 80mg/km until 2021, and to be allowed to go 40% over the current limit after that’.
On the other hand, it has introduced plans for Clean Air Zones in five English cities by 2020, one of which is Southampton. Drivers of some of the worst polluting vehicles, such as older buses and lorries, will be charged to enter the zone.
So we’ll have clean air in 4 years time. Job done. Not exactly. Law firm Client Earth doesn’t think this idea goes remotely far enough to tackle air pollution so it is planning on bringing an action in the High Court in order to force the Government to think again. One of the reasons is that these zones will not deal with one of the biggest sources of air pollution – passenger vehicles.
Recent research from Norway has shown that new diesel cars, (which have to be compliant with the latest EU legislation), actually emit 4-20 times the NOx allowed, when driving in city traffic and in cold weather. The average emissions from these vehicles were also around 4 times higher than that from city buses and other heavy vehicles of a similar age.
There also seem to be different tiers of Clean Air Zones across the country. Leeds and Birmingham will go a step further than Southampton and require high polluting diesel vans to the pay the charge, alongside introducing other measures such as changes in road layouts and park and ride schemes.
Could we also up our game? How much would it cost? There would be a financial burden involved in encouraging people to drive less within the city. But consider this. The cost currently associated with health problems related to motorised transport in Southampton is £50million, and this figure does not even factor in the effects of nitrogen dioxide. Also, the infrastructure that allows you to go that extra mile doesn’t come for free – road surfacing, traffic lights and so on, all cost money. It would be more cost-effective to reduce the level of air pollution than to tackle the related public health issues, especially because we can’t be sure there is actually a ‘safe’ level of air pollution.
Does Southampton City Council have a plan for improving air quality? The city does have an Air Quality Action Plan which should have reduced vehicle emissions to an acceptable level by the start of this year. Unfortunately, according to the council website, this does not seem to have have been achieved: ‘All of Southampton’s 10 Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) have been declared for exceeding the nitrogen dioxide annual mean air quality standard’.
However, councillors are currently considering a number of recommendations for dealing with our air pollution crisis, including the aforementioned park and ride; improving cycling infrastructure; and encouraging school children to plant trees.
What are the effects of air pollution on children? Just like miners who used to carry canaries into the tunnels with them to warn of dangerous gases, children are becoming our roadside canaries. A great deal of research has been done on the effects of air pollution on children, all of which makes for sobering reading: high levels of air pollution have been found to stunt lung growth in children; the developing brain may be vulnerable to traffic-related air pollution; and nitrogen dioxide is a cause of asthma, with each classroom in the UK having on average 3 children who suffer from this disease. However, there is hope, in that studies have also found that long-term improvements in air quality are linked with improvements in lung function in children.
Will technology save us? Perhaps in time we might have roadside wind turbines which not only scrub the air of pollutants but capture energy created by moving vehicles, and very soon we can expect some of our buses to run that little bit cleaner.
But there are other ideas we could consider first. How about car-free days, children being able to play in the streets and following the German example of actually banning certain vehicles from entering parts of the city instead of allowing drivers to pay a charge? Closer to home, Brighton & Hove has a 20mph speed limit across the city with the aims of improving overall health and wellbeing, and encouraging more cycling and walking.
This seems like an urgent issue, what can I do? A great deal! You can make sustainable travel choices, think differently about the school run, put pressure on the Council to put air quality at the top of its agenda, and petition the UK Government to tighten environmental regulations on vehicle emissions.
You can also support the local people who are campaigning for better air quality on our behalf, such as Liz Batten of Transition Southampton and Colin McQueen of the Western Docks Consultation Forum. Liz is working on a map of air pollution hotspots in relation to schools across the city; Colin has attended all meetings of the council’s Air Scrutiny Panel. Both wish to raise public awareness of the issue, particularly in local schools.
What has this got to do with climate change? Since the 1990s the public has been persuaded that buying diesel vehicles will help in the battle against climate change. This was despite government knowledge that diesel engines emit 4 times the amount of NO2 and 22 times more particulate matter, whilst only achieving a 15% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
2016 is the year for decisive action if we are to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement but also avoid a public health crisis from poor air in our cities. Moving to sustainable forms of travel means reducing emissions of both greenhouse gases and dangerous air pollutants. This is a win-win situation as it will result in safer streets, cleaner air and a lower carbon footprint. What’s not to like?
I’d like to know more! You can also find a list of websites providing some additional information on air quality and sustainable transport here. However, to start you off, real time air quality monitoring for Southampton is available online and an excellent Q&A on air pollution can be found here.
Let’s end on a song. We could go with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’:
“Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot …”
but hopefully we can all work towards this idea instead:
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