Activist: London air pollution ‘primarily a diesel problem’

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This article is part of our special report Air Quality.

In the UK, air pollution is the biggest public health risk after smoking, causing up to 50,000 premature deaths every year, says Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air London, a campaign group.

Simon Birkett, is founder and director of Clean Air in London, a campaign group. He was speaking to EURACTIV's editor, Frédéric Simon, on the sidelines of a EURACTIV workshop on air quality, held in October 2011.

Click here to watch a video highlight of the interview.

Why is air quality in Europe so important today?

It's probably the biggest public health risk after smoking. In the UK something between 30 and 50,000 people a year are dying early just due to poor air quality and that's totally unacceptable in the 21st century.

What progress has been made over the past years to tackle this problem and what are the remaining challenges?

Air pollution is less than it was 50 or 60 years ago. But 50 or 60 years ago we didn't know about the long-term harm that comes from air pollution. So let me give you an example, during the great smog of 1952, 4,000 people died early from that episode. Now in the last 10 years we have found out the harm from long-term exposure and guess what that number in London is: 4,000

And in practice – because that's a pure number eliminating some 40 other statistical causes of death – the real number probably includes everyone who is dying from cardiovascular causes, which is just under 16,000 people in London, loosing an additional 3 years of life every year from air pollution. That is totally unacceptable.

What are the main causes of this pollution in a city like London?

Road transport is responsible for about 80% of the most harmful emissions in central and inner London and it is primarily a diesel problem. We have recently had some statistic from the government saying that diesel cars, for example, produced 20 times as much of the harmful pollution as petrol vehicles. So we really do need to tackle that problem.

What is the EU's role in tackling that problem? Is the current legislative framework at the EU level satisfactory in you view or should it be improved?

Well, the legal standards for dangerous air-borne particles are about twice the World Health Organisation guideline level so they need to be tightened very substantially.

The nitrogen dioxide legal standards are much more aligned and I think what would be very important, with the European Commission's Year of Air coming up in 2013, that a regime of recommendations is put in place to provide continuity of the legal framework but also the further tightening of public health and legal protections for people.

Is this an issue that you are going to raise in advance of the London Olympics next year?

London has got the worst nitrogen dioxide problem for, example, of any of the 27 capital cities in Europe. The Olympic organisers have admitted in March this year that the Olympic route network would cause breaches of air quality laws by displacing traffic and causing congestion.

They are working at the moment on designing mitigation measures but we haven't yet seen a package that will tackle that problem. If we get high ozone levels as we have had a couple of times this year it really could be an issue for athletes next year.

Should traffic in London be cut during the Olympics to help reduce the pollution levels?

The Olympic authorities themselves say that they need to reduce background levels of traffic by 30%, even allowing for slightly less traffic being around anyway in the summer. Now there are two ways of doing that traditionally.

The first is something which they call 'The big scare tactic' which is effectively manipulating people's expectations, telling them 'don't drive in because it will be awful' even if it isn't going to be awful. The other way is the Chinese approach which was banning vehicles with odd and an even number plates on alternate days.

That is going to be a political hot potato in the UK and a better idea, which Clean Air London has proposed, is to have a tighter Berlin-style no-emission zone in inner London during the 100 days across the Olympics, the Paralympics and actually slightly earlier with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Has the low-emission zone been effective in London in reducing air pollution?

The London no-emission zone is a scheme at the very outskirts of the city. It is a weak scheme, even next year when it is tightened in January, it will still be only a Euro3 standard for vehicles over 1.25 tonnes whereas the German scheme has been Euro4 for diesel since the beginning of 2010.

But even though the London scheme is much weaker than the German scheme it has been successful at reducing some of the harmful pollutants and I think black carbon is a particular example.

Turning to indoor quality, is it mainly influenced by outdoor air or are there specific concerns for indoor air quality?

About half of the health impact from indoor air quality is actually outside air so it's the outside air infiltrating into buildings. It is then made worse by sources in the building, like through cooking, emissions from building materials, and so on.

So Indoor air quality for some pollutants can be much worse than outdoor air quality and there are no legal requirements to address it. The new EN13779 standards do set some standards for buildings, but it is not a legal requirement yet and it really should be, certainly for the larger buildings.

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