This month, cold, windless weather helped trap vehicle exhaust within London’s narrow streets, and story after story appeared in the media, declaring the city’s air to be worse than Beijing’s.
Green lobbyists, NGOs and researchers lined up to repeat the tale of the thousands of untold deaths that ‘toxic smog’ brings to Londoners each year. And, sure enough, regulation followed the scare stories. London mayor Sadiq Khan has announced strict new controls for cars, vans and trucks entering London, signalling the end of the road for diesel fuel.
From October this year – the 14th anniversary of London’s congestion charge, as Khan proudly pointed out – vehicles manufactured before 2006 will have to pay a ‘T-Charge’ (‘T’ for ‘toxicity’) of £10 on top of the £11 congestion charge to use the roads within the centre of London. (Vehicles bought since 2006 will have been built to comply with EU legislation regulating their emissions, and so will not be charged.) And from 2019, an ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) will be created in the current congestion-charging area, and will expand the following year to include the area encompassed by the North and South Circular roads.
The main justification for these new rules is, of course, public health. Much has been made of the link between pollution and health by the usual suspects – public-health lobbyists and researchers, green NGOs, disoriented campaigners, or simply bored journalists. But now the mayor of London’s own missives are expressed in the shrill, histrionic language that we have come to expect from scaremongering greens. ‘London’s air is toxic and a silent killer’, says Khan, announcing the new policies on his website. ‘We must act now to tackle this air-quality emergency and prevent further damage to the health of Londoners.’
Khan is wrong – there is no ‘air-quality emergency’ in London. What pollution there is presents a problem only to people with pre-existing, chronic conditions, at certain times and places (mostly at the kerbsides of very busy routes, especially during rush hour and on cold, still days). If London’s air was toxic, and there really was a public-health emergency, then why have Londoners’ life-expectancy estimates risen by a year above the average for England and Wales? Moreover, a map of the congestion-charging zone, which encompasses the most heavily polluted areas in the country, in fact shows that exposure to air pollution has no direct effect on life expectancy for people living in those areas.
The London congestion-charging zone and London boroughs, life expectancy (male/female) in red.
On the north side of the river, and to the west, lie the wealthy boroughs of Westminster and Camden, where life expectancy (shown in red – male/female) exceeds the average for England and Wales (79.3/83.0) by around three years. This is in spite of Westminster’s famous shopping destination, Oxford Street, having been dubbed by researchers ‘the most polluted street in the world’.