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Should London ban "dirty" diesel?

Smog is hanging over many of the world’s cities, looking exactly how it makes asthmatics feel – as though it’s suffocating everyone.

Diesel, once hailed as a relatively clean, environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, is increasingly being recognised as a threat to public health. After decades of support and the promotion of the widespread belief that diesel releases less CO2 when burnt than petrol, sales of diesel vehicle in the UK have increased steadily. However, the truth is that some old diesel cars emit other pollutants by up to 20 times as much as their petrol equivalents, especially on congested city streets. To fix this, four capital cities – Paris, Athens, Madrid, and Mexico City – have agreed to remove diesel vehicles from their centres by 2025. Now, there are calls to ban them from London too.

The white skies in Paris over the winter break did not signal snow. Rather, drivers faced two days of mayhem after concern over an unsettlingly low and dense layer of smog caused the authorities to restrict traffic in the city by banning vehicles with odd license-plates one day, and even ones the next. In return, public transport in Paris was free for those two days. Comparatively, when the pollution in London reaches terribly unhealthy levels, Plume Labs (who monitor air quality in London) advise Londoners to “avoid all physical activities outside”. There is something ironic about being advised to shun life-prolonging activities in order to prolong your life.

A recent study by the King’s College, London, Environmental Research Group for Transport for London and the Greater London Authority investigated the health impacts of poor air quality in the capital. They estimated that, in 2010, approximately 140,743 years were shaved off people’s lives as a result of air pollution in the city – the equivalent of 9,416 (normal length) lives lost. Diesel exhaust, which contains harmful gases (such as nitrogen dioxide), fine particulates, and soot, is a major cause of reduction in air quality. 

Doctors Against Diesel are taking a stand to change this. Last December, hundreds of medical professionals and environmental campaigners amassed along Euston Road, reportedly one of London’s most polluted thoroughfares. The group gathered to call on the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to impose a ban on diesel in the city centre and to gradually curb its use in the suburbs. Prof. Jonathan Grigg, who is both a consultant paediatrician at the Royal London Hospital and a researcher into the effects of pollution on children at Queen Mary University of London, told The Guardian that “if you’re going to design something that would effectively deliver a toxic substance into the lungs, you couldn’t do better than the diesel soot particle”.

This is a popular sentiment – progressive UK think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has stated that “it is likely that diesel cars will have to be completely phased out on London’s roads over the next decade in order to reach compliance with safe and legal levels of air pollution”. Diesel has been in the headlines since last September, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) accused Volkswagen of having knowingly installed ‘defeat devices’ in 482,000 Volkswagen and Audi diesel engines in the US alone since 2008, to devastating effect. The software allowed the cars to pass the required emissions testing in laboratories, but in the real world they released harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) at “40 times more pollution than emissions standards allow”.

In London, Sadiq Khan responded to ‘Dieselgate’ by demanding that Volkswagen replace the £2.5 million that the city would have accrued in Congestion Charge returns. Now he’s gone two steps further – imposing an extra £10 toxicity charge for the most polluting vehicles in the city centre, and recommending the development of a “detailed proposal for a national diesel scrappage scheme for Government to implement”, as well as declaring that, from 2018, London will obtain no new pure diesel buses. Khan also unveiled his contribution to the anti-diesel effort, which takes the form of the first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered double-decker bus, and promised that future single-decker buses will be ‘zero emission’.

While these measures are promising, London still has a long way to go before its air is fit to breathe. Some 90% of NO2 emissions from road transport in central London are the result of diesel engines and, warned Helena Molin Valdés, head of the United Nations’ climate and clean air coalition, “soot from diesel vehicles is among the big contributors to ill health and global warming”. However, Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars. Their current plan is to formulate more detailed proposals from the opinions collected during the consultation, particularly regarding the creation of an Ultra Low Emission Zone and whether it should come into force in 2019 or 2020. Ultimately, the Mayor will make this decision, but his choices must be based on the responses received during the three consultation stages that TfL plans to complete this year.

Less than a week into 2017, a monitor on Brixton Road had noted that NO2 concentration levels had surpassed 200 micrograms per cubic metre, which European Law dictates must not occur more than 18 times per year. Last year, ClientEarth, a non-profit activist organisation that specialises in environmental law, won a High Court ruling against the government over its failure to adequately handle the issue of the UK’s air pollution by citing an EU directive that allowed them to push the government to prosecute people who drive old diesel vehicles in urban zones. Mr. Justice Garnham stated that ministers were aware that pollution modelling was being based on the deceptive results of faulty lab tests instead of recorded road emissions. Although the government denied that it would appeal the decision, at Prime Minister’s Questions Theresa May claimed, “We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it”.

Alan Andrews, one of ClientEarth’s lawyers, spoke to a Commons Select Committee, and conceded that a blanket ban on diesel cars would ignore the nuance of the situation. Instead, he supported Khan’s proposal for a government-backed “range of measures to disincentivise diesel, including a scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle exise duty”. Khan has also called for new legislation that updates the Clean Air Act to reflect the dangers posed by diesel in the 21st century. The last Clean Air Act, passed in 1956, came about as a result of the Pea Souper – otherwise known as the Great Smog of London. As viewers of Netflix’s popular series, The Crown, will tell you, though, there was nothing great about the air pollution plague.

There are fears that leaving the EU will allow the UK to repeal the emissions laws that hold the government accountable for increases in air pollution – particularly due to diesel exhausts. However, with the recent court cases and public scrutiny due to the dangerously low air quality in London, it seems probable that the government will support almost any means necessary to make cities less hazy. Although this does not mean the immediate implementation of a diesel ban, it is likely alternative fuel sources will be phased in alongside actions such as the rollout of an Ultra Low Emissions Zone. While this in itself will not eradicate the issue of air pollution in the capital as diesel vehicles are not the only sources of pollutants, the effects of such legislation will not be insignificant and, combined with other green policies, are a step in the right direction towards a cleaner future.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear