Just in case you were enjoying this week’s unseasonably warm weather, I have some bad news for you. If you live in London, Brussels, or Paris you are breathing higher levels of air pollution than in Beijing.
During these spells of high pollution, more people will die from heart attacks and strokes and more people will be admitted to hospital with asthma and other breathing problems. Older people and those with pre-existing health problems are being advised to reduce physical activity or even stay indoors.
How are our capitals responding to the smog?
Having moved from London to Brussels at the end of last year it is interesting to see the difference in response. Here you can’t escape the “Grade 1” smog warnings, which are on the pages of virtually every newspaper and website and broadcast regularly on weather forecasts and news bulletins. Even the PA on the metro is warning passengers and encouraging them to leave their cars at home (in four different languages).
Crucially, the Belgian authorities are also taking emergency measures to try to cut levels of pollution. A blanket speed limit of 50km/h has been imposed in Brussels and free transport has been offered in nearby Wallonia. In Paris the authorities are similarly combining the stick of lower speed limits with the carrot of free public transport in an effort to cut traffic fumes. So why isn’t the same happening in London? It’s hard to dispel the feeling that lives are being put at risk because the British government doesn’t want to draw attention to its own failure to tackle pollution.
People need protection from air pollution
We need adequate smog warnings so that the vulnerable can protect themselves. Children, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and a history of heart attacks or stroke are at risk and need to be able to reduce their exposure. Emergency measures are needed so that local traffic fumes don’t make the situation worse.
However, this is only damage limitation. To stop these lethal smog events happening in the first place we also need to tackle pollution at source. Air pollution does not respect national boundaries: the current smog is a cocktail of gases and particles from industry, traffic and agriculture, which gathered in central Europe and is now circling around the continent and mixing with locally produced pollution.
No one country can hope to solve this problem alone, so the new package of EU air pollution directives currently on the table is essential to cut emissions and deliver better air quality. However, current proposals would put off any meaningful targets until 2030 and condemn us to decades of dirty air, ill health and early deaths. With less than two months to go until the elections to the European Parliament, we need MEPs who will lead the fight for clean air in Brussels.
In the meantime ClientEarth will continue to uphold the right to clean air in the courts – our case against the UK Government will be heard by the Court of Justice of the EU later this year.