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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

Culture & Life

Air pollution crisis

BRITAIN: The University of Surrey has just published some research on urban air pollution. It urges parents to use pram covers to protect babies and young children from harmful pollution encountered during the school run.

The research followed measurements from air monitoring equipment placed inside toddlers’ prams being pushed to and from schools, during drop-off and pick-up times.

Bus stops and traffic lights turned out to be the worst places for exposure to the tiny particles from exhaust fumes and tyres that can get into the bloodstream. And more of these harmful particles were in the air during morning drop-off times, when traffic was at its busiest.

The West has long looked condescendingly at images of Chinese citizens wandering their streets wearing medical masks to protect against unbearable air pollution levels. Tourists in Britain wearing the same masks have often been regarded as obsessive oddities. Now the problem doesn’t seem so far away.

A recent World Health Organisation report said that 570,000 children under the age of five die each year from illnesses that could be linked to pollution. Britain doesn’t have comparable figures for child mortality, but the evidence is there about developmental damage that air pollution brings with it.

In the face of this, researchers may be right in saying it is sensible for parents to take their own protective measures in respect of babies and toddlers, but is this what society needs?

In my childhood years, I confess to thinking that the pea-soup fogs were a bit of a blessing. We were sent home from school early, as bus services were curtailed.

Schools could remain closed for days. Kids loved it, parents less so. We knew the smogs made a mess of our mums’ washing lines, it just took longer to grasp that the real price was being paid by our lungs.

It took the London smog disaster of 1952 – killing over 12,000 people and blighting the health of hundreds of thousands more – to shake the nation into action. Something had to be done to bring to an end the delusion that soot-filled skies were a sign of economic success. And the answer wasn’t to be found in the mass production of pram covers.

The unlikely hero came in the form of Duncan Sandys, the housing minister in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. It was Sandys who took on industrial lobbyists who, for decades, had wriggled their way round attempts to force an improvement in Britain’s air quality standards.

The Clean Air Act 1956 is widely regarded as a milestone in environmental protection. The legislation included powers to establish smokeless zones, offered generous subsidies to householders to convert to cleaner fuels (smokeless solid fuel, gas and electricity) and set penalties for those who failed to act.

The story has it that there was such a fine political balance – between entrenched pollution rights and a societal right to breathe – that Macmillan told Sandys to remain behind at the end of the Cabinet meeting. When the room was clear, Sandys found himself pressed back by Macmillan who was prodding him in the chest and proclaiming “Understand this, Sandys. If it all goes #$@&%*!-up, you’re on your own!”

Fortunately, it didn’t. But the changes took more than a decade (and further clean air acts) to fully and finally nail themselves in place. What it required was political leadership – the one quality Britain that is lacking today.

Anyone following the Chancellor’s Budget could be forgiven for presuming that air pollution was not a problem. Despite the fact that the courts have twice found Britain in breach of binding air quality standards, none of this was reflected in the Budget; no new “car scrappage” scheme for the oldest, most polluting vehicles; no funding for extensive “clean air zones;” no hike in the pump price of diesel; no motor industry support package tied specifically (and exclusively) to the next generation of clean energy vehicles nor any support for a ban on diesel vehicles in urban areas.

The Chancellor seems to have acquired the nickname of “Spreadsheet Phil,” apparently put down to some forensic attention to detail. If this is true, then he has also managed to find a way of doing so without breathing. The government’s economic plan looks increasingly like an energy, climate and environmental crisis.

In throwing money at North Sea oil extraction the Chancellor continues to feed the addiction to fossil fuels. Taxing non-polluting solar roofs, rather than heavily polluting diesel vehicles, puts him on the side of the problem, not the solution. What it does, however, is throw lifelines to the government’s friends (and financial backers).

Under any sort of scrutiny, Spreadsheet Phil metamorphoses into Toxic Phil; but the press refuse to see it. Britain’s problems today are rooted in a government still umbilically linked to the political sootsuckers of the ’50s and ’60s.

This isn’t just about clapped-out old vehicles. The Times has reported that tests on the burgeoning fleet of new diesel delivery vehicles show them running around Britain’s streets at emissions levels 20 times greater than the legal limit.

It isn’t as though we lack other choices. Norway and the Netherlands have already legislated to end the production of fossil fuel vehicles by 2025. Germany is pushing for this to be an EU-wide policy by 2030. And a flotilla of international cities are aiming to get there before their national governments. Shame no-one has told Hammond and Theresa May.

Across Europe and North America there are cities filling their skylines with solar panels that will feed urban networks of electric vehicle (EV) charging points. In France and California you cannot construct a new building that doesn’t have clean energy generation in (or on) it. Others are looking at storing wind surpluses into hydrogen fuel cells to power the next generation of hydrogen powered vehicles – with oxygen as the gas coming out of exhaust pipes. The whole of Sweden’s public-sector vehicles will soon run on biofuels reclaimed from their own waste streams.

No-one has the courage to say it, but there is nothing behind May’s veneer that is remotely up to the challenges this generation has to face. Crises in climate, soil fertility, food security, energy supply, fuel poverty, forced migrations and social fragmentation will not be resolved by the freemarketeering feudalism she brings to the table.

Propping up the past will not make Britain fit for the future.

If we are to save our children from today’s age of muck, we must learn the lessons of what ended the last one. Britain’s age of smog was ended by a combination of strong political leadership on environmental issues; big transformations in energy and transport policy and inclusive and accountable benefits.

None of these are within reach of a UK government that eagerly runs its Trumpette tenderness behind policies that will sink us all.

Morning Star

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