This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, a piece of government legislation prompted in part by the Great Smog of December 1952 that caused between 4,000 and 12,000 premature deaths.
Air quality in the capital has vastly improved since those days of ‘pea souper’ fogs. A study of sunshine in Greenwich and other sites around east London reveals that winter months are, on average, around 18 per cent sunnier today than they were in the same period before the act was implemented in 1956. Though the cause of this is possibly partly because of a decline in winter anticyclones – weather systems that can give weeks of dull, murky conditions – further environmental legislation has helped.
Though the sky is clearer conditions at street level have grown steadily worse in recent years. During the first week of 2016 it was revealed that parts of the capital had already breached annual EU hourly limits for nitrogen dioxide – a pollutant that causes thousands of premature deaths through respiratory problems each year. A study last year showed that nearly 9,500 people die early each year in London because of long-term exposure to air pollution, more than twice as many as previously thought, according to the research.
Although action is being taken to reduce pollution from diesel buses, taxis and lorries the figures reveal that we are once again getting to the level of deaths caused by the Great Smog. The new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, seems to be taking pollution a lot more seriously than his predecessor with a number of initiatives announced – making London compliant with EU legal limits well before the government’s target of 2025.
However, the mayor has also sent out conflicting messages by saying he backs the expansion of City Airport – you can’t have it both ways. And, if we do leave the EU, what will replace these EU legal limits?
With the current political situation lurching from one disaster to another I fear that the environment will get pushed well down the agenda. The current list of candidates vying to take over from David Cameron as prime minister include ‘dark horse’ Andrea Leadsom, the energy and climate change minister, who has been an ardent supporter of fracking. And on coal she recently sparked controversy in February where she assured the industry the pledged 2025 coal phase-out was just a consultation and encouraged it to suggest what ‘unabated coal’ means.
The many benefits of EU membership got lost in the debate over the last few weeks – improvement in the environment being one of them. It is why, without the beady eye of Brussels keeping watch over us, that we must ensure that the next government stick to their promise of continual improvement to the capital’s air quality.