Boris Johnson has let London down on air pollution. Photo: Getty
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Air pollution in London is set to haunt Boris Johnson again

Air pollution in London will haunt the Mayor of London once again, as his appearance at parliament's Environment Committee today marks an annus horribilis for air quality in the capital.

“B*llocks” Boris Johnson tweeted, as he responded to findings from one of the country’s top emission scientists, Dr David Carslow. The outburst was the Mayor’s unique response to evidence that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Oxford Street were unparalleled in the world. The Mayor’s appearance before members of parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee today will likely be followed more closely than most and not simply by those waiting for the Mayor to push the boundaries of the English language. Following his recent announcement that he intends to return to Parliament, the commentariat will be watching closely to see how the Mayor fares in his likely new stomping ground from 2015.

Despite initially trying to dodge the appearance by telling Committee Chair Joan Walley MP his schedule “makes it impossible for me to attend” the Mayor will today face parliamentary scrutiny. Aside from the hubbub created by the Boris Johnson PR circus arriving in Westminster, there will be many who will be watching the Mayor and feeling deeply uneasy about what little progress has been made on tackling London’s silent killer. Many of these concerns will endure as the Mayor’s attention is inevitably taken by loftier ambitions.

Air pollution, and the Mayor’s failure to really get to grips with the issue, has dogged his administration from the very beginning. The "flagship" Low Emission Zone  has been progressively watered down and the Mayor’s latest proposal for an Ultra Low Emission Zone won’t even be implemented until 2020 – something that I have advocated bring forward. Despite the fanfare the ULEZ now bears little resemblance to the original promise of a “scheme that would aim to ensure all vehicles driving in the centre of the capital during working hours would be zero or low emission”. As part of the project, the Mayor has unveiled plans to allow vehicles that do not meet certain European green standards into this supposedly “ultra low” zone for a £10 fee. Whilst this will act as deterrence to some, it will still allow some of the dirtiest and most polluting vehicles into the very heart of London. The message seems to be, you can drive the dirtiest vehicles, but only if you can afford to pay.

All this comes at a time when the scientific evidence of the health impact of air pollution is growing day by day. It is a matter of scientific fact that, by adulthood, a child growing up by a main road in London will suffer markedly reduced lung growth compared to the average person. As well as respiratory conditions, this has a whole array of knock on health impacts including links to stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

Yet in spite of this evidence the Mayor has sought to play down London’s air pollution crisis. Commenting during this spring’s two smog episodes he said “I'm urging people just to have a little balance here, I cycled this morning and it seemed perfectly fine to me". The Mayor’s comments came just as it was confirmed by Defra that London was experiencing ‘Level 10’ air pollution –the worst possible.

When Boris Johnson was first elected, solving London’s poor air quality was one of the biggest policy challenges facing the city. As he sets his sights on pastures new it seems we should expect little more from this Mayor. As a consequence of the toxic mix of acquiescence, botched policies and watered down proposals, air quality will sadly remain London’s biggest environmental challenge and one that will be high in the in-tray for the next Mayor.

Murad Qureshi AM is Labour’s London Assembly environment spokesperson

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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