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New data reveals dramatic improvement in London’s air quality

by LLB political Reporter
3rd Oct 20 10:45 am

City Hall has today published new data showing dramatic improvements in London’s air quality across the capital since 2016. New modelling of pollution in 2019 shows that, even before lockdown, measures implemented by the Mayor since 2016 helped transform London’s air.

There are two main air pollutants of concern in London, based on their impact on human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5). Poor air quality stunts the growth of children’s lungs and worsens chronic illness, such as asthma, lung and heart disease.

While significant progress has been made, with a substantial reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding legal limits for NO2, tens of thousands of Londoners still breathe illegally polluted air and 99 per cent of Londoners live in areas exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended guidelines for PM2.5, which are much tighter than the legal standards. Research shows that those exposed to the worst air pollution are more likely to be deprived Londoners and from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. There is also emerging evidence linking air pollution with an increased vulnerability to the most severe impacts of COVID-19.

The report – which includes new data from the Environmental Research Group now at Imperial College London – reveals that the number of state primary and secondary schools located in areas exceeding legal pollution limits (NO2) has fallen from 455 in 2016 to only 14 in 2019 – a huge reduction of 97 per cent. 

There is still much more work to do before London meets legal pollution limits and Londoners breathe clean air. 24 per cent of roads in inner London still exceed the legal limits for NO2. For dangerous particles (PM2.5) the challenge is greater still with only one per cent of London meeting WHO recommended limits. This underlines the need to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North and South Circular roads in 2021 as 3.8 million people live within the expanded ULEZ zone. 

The success of the existing central London ULEZ and other action taken by the Mayor gives confidence that expansion of the ULEZ will help deliver wider benefits for London, including saving the NHS around £5 billion and preventing more than one million hospital admissions over the next 30 years.

In London, the world’s first 24 hour Ultra Low Emission Zone has contributed to a reduction of 44 per cent in roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the central London ULEZ zone*. There are now 44,100 fewer polluting vehicles being driven in the central zone every day with 79 per cent of vehicles in the zone now meeting the ULEZ emissions standards – up from 39 per cent in February 2017**. CO2 emissions in the central ULEZ zone are also now estimated to have reduced by 12,300 tonnes, a reduction of six per cent, compared to a scenario with no ULEZ in place.

The fact that 99 per cent of London does not meet WHO recommended limits adds to the growing evidence and cross-party consensus that these limits should be included in the Environment Bill as a legally binding target to be met by 2030. This is needed for the protection of people’s health and research from the CBI has showed that cleaner air could boost the economy by £1.6 billion. This means getting the right air quality standards adopted in the Environment Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our cities and economies to be greener, fairer, and more sustainable. Research previously published by City Hall shows achieving these standards is possible if the Government gives the Mayor the additional powers he has consistently lobbied for.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said, “I was elected on a mandate to deliver hard-hitting measures to tackle our toxic air crisis. Today’s report confirms the transformative impact that my policies have had in just four years. I’m pleased that Londoners are breathing cleaner air, that we’re saving the NHS billions of pounds and preventing over a million hospital admissions.

“However, air pollution remains a major public health challenge and it’s time for Government to step up, set ambitious national targets and provide the powers and funding we need to consign air pollution to the history books. We can’t sleep walk from the health crisis of COVID back into complacency over the major impact of toxic air on everyone’s health.”

Deputy Mayor for the Environment, Shirley Rodrigues, said, “Today’s report shows what the Mayor has achieved by implementing ambitious policies. The ULEZ is the centrepiece of our plans to clean up London’s air. We have and are implementing the boldest plans of any city on the planet and the ULEZ is exceeding expectations, reducing harmful roadside nitrogen dioxide by 44 per cent in central London. At City Hall we are determined to stop Londoners breathing air so filthy it is damaging our children’s lungs and causing thousands of premature deaths.” 

Senior Lecturer in Air Pollution Measurement at Imperial College London, Dr Gary Fuller, said, “Breathing bad air has had an intolerable impact on Londoners’ health for far too long. In our operations centre we have been measuring London’s air pollution for nearly 30 years. During this time we’ve seen deteriorations followed by a long period when some places showed slow improvement, and others slowly worsened.

“It felt like we were at a standstill. But, the changes in nitrogen dioxide in central London and along main bus routes before COVID were some of the fastest that we’ve ever measured. Starting around 2016, London’s air pollution underwent a dramatic change and this time it was change for the better. These successes show that our city’s air pollution is not an intractable problem and further action can bring even greater results. ”

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