Greece heads to the polls

A hair's-breadth victory for the right is predicted, but time will tell.

The Greek polls have opened, and will stay open until around 4pm British time, with the first exit polls being released around 6:30. Although opinion polling isn't allowed in the country in the two weeks leading up to the election, various organisations have been conducting their own private polls, many of which reportedly point to the conservative New Democrats winning by a hair's breadth.

There are still a number of undecideds in the Greek electorate, however, and analysis has been devoted to trying to determine what is likely to swing them. Some jokingly suggest that the results of Saturday's football match against Russia (which Greece won in a surprise 1-0 result) may lead to the Greeks feeling more emboldened to elect a candidate who will stand up to Europe; others that it may make them feel better about the whole situation and just want to play along.

Something which may have a real effect on the polls was suggested by Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal: taxes. Owing to the backwards nature of the Greek tax system (which still involves paying much of the bills in person with cash), the caretaker government hasn't levied any taxes in the run-up to the election. But they are widely expected to be raised in the next couple of days, which means many Greeks are heading to their accountants:

Okay, so in the past several days people have begun preparing their post-election taxes, and they've been hit with sticker shock. The new austerity reforms have seen some major increases in tax bills for the average Greek... sometimes to the tune of 300-400 per cent, according to one person familiar with the intricacies of it all.

This has got people particularly angry, and it could be this trend which causes people at the last second to turn away from [the leader of the New Democrats, Antonis] Samaras with disgust, and vote for [the leader of the SYRIZA, Alexis] Tsipras.

Many in the European establishment see the election of Tsipras as the worst case scenario for Greece, fearing that it will lead him and Angela Merkel to enter into a game of chicken which will result in Greece being ejected from the euro. But the Financial Times is reporting that one even worse outcome may be about to occur; a hung parliament:

Private opinion polls showed that none of the parties would win a parliamentary majority. The centre-right New Democracy party had a three-point lead over the radical left Syriza coalition, but neither party would capture even 30 per cent of the vote, according to two private polls seen by the FT. . .

A delay in forming a coalition, or in the worst case, a recourse to a third election if negotiations fail, could cause Greek public finances to collapse. Officials at the finance ministry said last week that unless a delayed €1bn tranche of EU-IMF funding is paid, funds to pay pensions and public sector wages would be exhausted by July 20.

The World Bank's outgoing head, Rober Zoellick, has told the Observer that Europe is one step away from a "Lehmans moment", but much of his criticism was focused on the deleterious effects of uncertainty in Europe on developing nations. That uncertainty will either be cleared up, or magnified greatly, by events today.

Polling slips for the two main parties, SYRIZA and New Democracy, in a polling station in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.