Blog Post

London’s air pollution warnings need more attention

This week saw a warning from the Mayor about dangerous air pollution levels in London, but life in the capital carried on as usual. Our Director of External Affairs Jo Corfield considers the measures that could be put in place to make sure tackling poor air quality is taken seriously and given the urgent attention it deserves.

Today will be a fabulous day of sunshine, the warmest of 2022 so far, the weather presenter on the radio said as I opened the front door to leave house on Monday. Looking up at the blue sky above I had to agree, it certainly looked good. It felt like a normal, sunny, spring day in London. The roads on my walk to my daughter’s nursery were jammed with cars. Lorry drivers were busily unpacking their deliveries. Workers in hard hats were drilling at the new housing development at the end of my road.  

With city life continuing as normal, it was safe to assume that most people had not seen that the mayor had triggered a ‘high’ air pollution alert for the next three days – the first he’s had to issue since August 2020. And why would they have? They probably don’t follow the Mayor on Twitter or receive press releases from his office. But if they did, they would have known to avoid unnecessary car journeys, stop engine idling and not to burn wood or garden waste, all of which contributes to elevated levels of pollution. 

The poor air quality was a result of imported pollution from the continent arriving in the city, alongside a build-up of local emissions. I am told by someone who helped to get the current alert system in place that it took a lot to get to this stage, but could we go further to tackle sources of local pollution when we are hit by a double whammy of high-pressure system and imported air pollution?  

What else could the mayor do? Making public transport free for short periods of time would encourage people to leave their cars at home. Followers of Centre for London’s work will be familiar with calls for a smart road user charging system which can be modified in real time to discourage driving on days when pollution levels are at their highest. Such a scheme could set charges in advance and vary according to vehicle characteristics, and pollution levels at given times. We can look to other cities for inspiration, both Athens and Madrid ban vehicles on certain days.  

We also know that construction work accounts for 34% of PM10 emissions within London, so could we ban all construction work for short periods of time? Could we divert aircraft landing at Heathrow away from the city? And, more simply, this is about communication: how do we tell people when there is a risk to their health? A simple solution would be to get air quality added to the weather forecast. 

We know that air quality is high up on Londoners’ list of priorities and concerns. A Savanta poll soon to be released by Centre for London found that over two fifth of Londoners regularly worry about air quality where they live and about the impact of climate change on London (43 per cent and 44 per cent respectively). We also know that those living in Inner London and worry more than people living in Outer London and young people too, are more concerned than their older counterparts. It is safe to assume that many Londoners would be open to tougher reactive measures for short periods of time to protect those who are vulnerable to high pollution.  

Jo Corfield is Director of External Affairs at Centre for London. Read more from her here. Follow her on Twitter.