A Beijing view of London’s air pollution

For Beijingers, London’s history offers an example of a successful fight against air pollution. But on a trip to the UK capital, Chinese journalist Feng Jie found a city still battling its demons

Inside London’s egg shaped City Hall on the south bank of the River Thames, London Assembly member Darren Johnson sits in a hall as grey as the sky outside, wearing his trademark green tie and welcoming a group of special Chinese visitors.

Johnson is a member of the Green Party and is meeting with a group of popular Chinese microbloggers, each with hundreds of thousands of followers. Most of them come from Beijing and are fed up with their city’s air pollution. They hope Johnson can offer some advice.

The Great Smog of 1952 is thought to have killed more than 4,000 Londoners. But in the 60 years since, London has cast off its Chinese nickname of the “Foggy Capital”, an allusion to the translated title of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. For many in China, the city offers an example of how to face up to and deal with air pollution.

But London’s story may not have the hoped-for fairytale ending. By EU standards, London has one the worst air quality of any European capital.

In mid-March, the city suffered several days of severe pollution, with PM2.5 levels reaching more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre – an amount which would hardly raise an eyebrow in Beijing, but still well above levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization and EU standards.

In a non-descript five-story building belonging to the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), senior scientific advisor for air quality Emily Connolly points out that the city’s average PM2.5 level is now 20. “And for us that’s serious,” she says. The Chinese audience can’t believe it, and ask the translator to check, and then check again. In Beijing, PM2.5 levels soared to 600 micrograms per cubic metre in January.

By comparison, London’s reaction seems almost obsessive. Confirming that London’s average PM2.5 level is lower than even Beijing’s best day, the Chinese crowd jokes that “If you haven’t breathed PM2.5 levels of 500, you haven’t lived.”

Back to 1952?

But the British aren’t being obsessive without cause.

DEFRA puts premature deaths from diseases caused by harmful particles in the air at 29,000 annually – enough to reduce average lifespan for the country by six months.

Frank Kelly, a leading researcher into the health impacts of air pollution at London’s King’s College, reaches an even more worrying conclusion: even if the UK controls PM2.5 levels at around the EU standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre, he says, more people will suffer from chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There will also be more detrimental impacts on unborn children, he adds.

London is also facing increasing pressure from outside. In the run up to the 2012 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee warned the city that it would reclaim 25% of broadcasting income – around £700 million – if air standards weren’t met. The EU has long ruled that countries where air quality fails to meet standards for over 35 days can be fined up to £300m.

Mark Demery, head of external relations for the London Assembly, told Southern Weekend that London has been talking action to avoid those fines.

In 2008, under the previous mayor Ken Livingstone, London established a 980 square-kilometre emissions zone, with costly charges or even fines for polluting buses, lorries and diesel vehicles. London Low Emission Zone (LEZ) signs dot streets from Piccadilly to Oxford Street to the cultural centre of Covent Garden. Demery explained that the current mayor Boris Johnson is considering expanding the LEZ.

Some unusual measures have also been taken, including the use of “pollution glue”. Since early 2012, dust suppressants have been sprayed on 15 of London’s most polluted streets to capture PM10 pollution, which it is hoped is then washed into sewers or carried off on vehicle tires. Preliminary research suggested this could achieve reductions of between 10% and 14% in pollution, though a more recent study from King’s College has questioned the efficacy.

The special “glue” spraying vehicles work from midnight to 6am, when few Londoners will see them.

But the mayor’s preferred weapon is under investigation by the EU. It is only a temporary measure, and as soon as you stop spraying the effect ends. If the EU find this is a form of cheating, those huge fines may be inevitable.

It is structural problems that cause London headaches, according to Simon Birkett, a clean-air campaigner who gave up a job at HSBC to dedicate himself to the campaigning on air quality. Birkett told Southern Weekend that “decades of development in road transportation have turned visible pollution invisible. The harmful effects of air pollution are increasing faster than pollution itself is being reduced. In this sense we’re back in the time of the Great Smog, even if we thought we’d left it behind.”

Birkett’s group, Clean Air in London, has for years been pressurising the government and lobbying the EU to tighten air quality standards.

In 2001, the European Commission passed a directive on ceilings for national emissions of atmospheric pollutants, which member states had to implement by 2010. 12 nations, including the UK and Germany, failed to do so.

In early 2013, the EU gave the UK a warning over its failure to comply. But despite almost inevitable delays, the UK was the only nation not to apply for an exemption. A DEFRA spokesperson explained that “the UK cannot reach EU standards by the end of 2015,” meaning that an exemption would have done no good.

Tom Levitt, managing editor at environmental website chinadialogue, worries that the UK will still struggle to get the job done: “It’s just the same old story of London failing to clean up its air.”

Weakened legislation and opposition

The UK has been procrastinating on air pollution ever since the Great Smog of 1952.

The government’s first response to that tragedy was to shift blame and deny the need for legislation to combat pollution.

“I am not satisfied that further general legislation is needed at present,” said then minister of housing and local government Harold Macmillan – later prime minister – despite a report from the London County Council making clear the dangers of air pollution.  

He proposed setting up an investigative committee, but warned that the government could not cure all ills. Health minister Iain Macleod also pleaded helplessness. “Really you know, anyone would think fog had only started in London since I became a minister,” he joked.

Under pressure from members of parliament and the LCC, the government eventually backed down and a committee of inquiry was formed, chaired by Sir Hugh Beaver.

Sixty years later, Robert Vaughan says that the delays in legislation were most likely due to years of debate and discussion: “The debate on how the government should respond to air pollution, and if it should limit or ban the types of fuels people could use, continued until 1955. It was only then that the Beaver Committee published its report and legislation became possible.”

The committee identified the chief culprit: domestic fuel use was less efficient and created twice as much pollution as industry. The government must ensure supply of smokeless coal, which the public would have to use during smoggy periods, while the Met Office needed to warn of those periods in advance, the report said.  

Dspite the report identifying the problem and proposing a practical solution, the UK government – facing a long list of urgent tasks in the wake of World War II – remained reluctant to act. A group of MPs decided to table their own bill, bypassing government inactivity. One of the MPs involved was Gerald Nabarro. 

That prompted the government to come up with its own alternative bill. Weaker than Nabarro’s proposed bill, the Clean Air Act passed in 1956 and provided a basis for dealing with air pollution.

It is also not commonly known that air quality standards, widely accepted today, were once subject to opposition.

At the time, the Greater London Council was a stalwart supporter of the EU’s air quality standards. It argued that lessons had to be learned from the smog and standards set to tackle the problem head on, rather than reacting to it passively.

But the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution disagreed: “While we welcome the intent to improve air quality… we do not think that the achievement of this aim by imposing rigid statutory limits is either wise or practical. We believe that such limits would be unenforceable in practice and would bring the law into disrepute.”

The debate ended in 1995 with the Environment Act, which required the government to produce national air quality standards and targets.

“People still don’t want change”

As coal-burning declined in the UK, power plants alongside the Thames reinvented themselves – as art galleries, or high-end apartment complexes.

It is impossible to think people today would ever go back to cleaning out chimneys and raking half-burnt bits of coal out of the ashes to reuse. But decades ago, when the government started to eliminate coal-burning as a response to the 1952 Great Smog, Londoners stood in opposition. Some of the upper and middle classes saw the coal fire as “a symbol of traditional British life”.

To deal with the root causes of the smog, the government set up strict smokeless and smoke control areas. And alongside strict enforcement, subsidies were provided for domestic fires to be converted.

“It is hard to imagine that 50 years ago many Londoners did not realise this was the right policy – and the same is true today,” said former mayor Ken Livingstone at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Great Smog in December 2002. Now, as then, people don’t like change.

When, in 2008, London needed to implement the emissions zone to cut new forms of pollution from vehicles, there was strong opposition from vehicle manufacturers’ associations and others. These groups complained that the charges and fines would badly affect owners of polluting trucks and construction machinery.

In a café in Old Street in east London, Tom Levitt recalls the air quality commitments made by the current mayor during his election campaign – but he thinks many have not been kept.

“London hasn’t been able to implement stricter emissions zone rules and eliminate polluting vehicles, and this is due in part to opposition from ‘white van man’,” said Levitt.

In the UK the term “white van man” refers to anyone who drives a small commercial van for work – plumbers, locksmiths, delivery drivers. These people were hit hardest by the LEZ charges.

But fortunately the government did not stand alone. Environmental groups, parliament and the city government mobilised political and commercial resources to deal with air pollution, all the while patiently telling the public that this was their responsibility too.

Today measures such as driving less, taking the underground, choosing more efficient vehicles and saving energy at home are advocated in government slogans and taught at school. They have become a part of the everyday lives of Londoners.

But today London is still under fire for the quality of its air, and both the UK government and the people of London are facing a difficult choice, similar to that of 1952.

Data to use

For the civil servants of DEFRA, it isn’t enough to just sit in the office and try to tackle air pollution. As the EU requires member states to make pollution data public, DEFRA has a specific transparency strategy.

Even before the advent of social media, DEFRA and other ministries were providing information by e-mail and telephone hotlines. Now websites and social media platforms are also used.

“The government has to give the public the data, because they are the taxpayers,” said Emily Connolly. DEFRA’s own website encourages the public to watch this hard-won data more closely, to make it more valuable.

A major part of the work of Connolly and her colleagues is publishing air pollution data and health advice via a UK Air website and associated Twitter and Facebook accounts.

To help ordinary people understand what abstract pollution data actually means, the UK Air website uses a colour-coded air quality index with 10 different levels. The deeper the colour, the worse the pollution – Band 10 is purple.

Health advice from government experts is given alongside the pollution data. In the week prior to the arrival of the Chinese delegation, the website was advising susceptible groups to reduce outdoor activity and also strenuous indoor activity, due to high pollution. The advice is so detailed it even tells asthma suffers to use their inhalers more often.

And while many employers might ban staff from using social media sites during working hours, for Connolly tweeting is actually part of her job.

In May 2012, DEFRA opened an official air quality Twitter account. The pollution index is tweeted three times daily through the week, and twice at weekends.

But after several months the account has less than 500 followers, failing to keep up with the Clean Air in London group. DEFRA is considering having pollution data included in weather forecasts – nobody in Britain would miss that.

The UK Air site also makes policy suggestions for government, depending on the degree of pollution.

“Once we’ve published the data, nobody else needs to,” explained Connolly. “And we license the data so others can use it.” She went on to say that using social media to make data available to both the public and business is a major target for DEFRA. They believe only this will motivate Londoners to work together to change their dirty air.

This article was first published in Southern Weekend