The 2012 Olympic Games will open in exactly two years’ time. London is set to put on a dazzling display, and just a couple of miles away from the Olympic stadium in Stratford, we’ll be cheering the action on from our office in Hackney.
We have been promised that the games will be ‘the greenest games in history’ and that one of its key legacies will be to encourage 2 million people to take up sport by the time the games start. However there is a very real danger that this will be undermined by London’s ongoing problems with poor air quality. London’s atmosphere contains illegal levels of two pollutants: dangerous airborne particles, known as ‘PM10’, and nitrogen dioxide ‘NO2’. Levels of air pollution on some of London’s streets regularly double World Health Organization recommendations. According to the mayor’s own estimates this causes around 4,300 premature deaths every year; studies show that poor air quality increases risks of heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and respiratory illness.
If we really want our city to be a centre for athletic excellence and a hotbed of public participation in sport, we must first ensure that it’s air is fit to breathe. The mayor’s draft air quality strategy, which is currently out for public consultation, does not go far enough to solving London’s air quality problems. In some respects it actually takes us backwards rather than forwards: by cancelling the western extension to the congestion charging zone and postponing the next phase of the low emission zone, two measures with proven air quality benefits. Furthermore, many of the measures that have been put forward won’t be implemented until after 2012, so the benefits won’t be felt for years after the Olympic bandwagon has left town. There is also a worry that many of the measures in the strategy either remain unfunded or are threatened by the ongoing drive to cut public spending.
Everyone wants the Olympics to be a great success, and there is every reason to believe that it can be. If we are to make it a lasting success, we must clean up London’s air pollution.