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Community / Public space

Some London streets have already hit their pollution limits for the entire year

If cities had New Year’s resolutions, it’s not too hard to guess what London’s might be. Our dirty little secret – the habit we can’t seem to shake – is our air pollution. Last year, the European Commssion launched legal proceedings against the UK as a whole for its failure to keep pollution levels below EU limits. And London, where Public Health England figures show that up to 1 in 14 deaths are linked to air pollution, is the worst culprit. 

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), which is formed when fuel is burnt in transport or power stations, may be our worst vice of all. High NO2 levels can cause respiratory problems, even after short-term exposure, and acid rain (think of the monuments!). In 2010, the year EU restrictions came into effect, the UK exceeded the recommended NO2 levels in 40 out of 43 areas.

And this year, we’re doing no better. Yesterday, the campaign group Clean Air in London announced that Oxford Street, the most polluted road in the country, had already surpassed the EU’s NO2 limits for the entire year.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as it initially sounds: the limit is calculated as the number of hours per year in which the pollutant is above recommended levels. In the case of NO2, the limit is 18 hours, a figure it only took Oxford four days to smash this year (one day less than it took in 2013). Putney High Street, meanwhile, hit the limit on the 5th. Brixton Road is due to reach it soon.

These figures are significant because they show how little progress has been made to combat pollution over the past year, despite claims by the mayor’s office that emissions have been reduced by a third in two years. The figures from Oxford Street imply that we’re actually going backwards.

In 2013, Oxford Street spent a total of 1,361 hours above the recommended NO2 limits (rather more than 18). Here are the figures for last year across a few London streets: 

The capital has plans to establish an Ultra Low Emissions Zone from 2020, where high-emission vehicles (usually those which use diesel) would have to pay a fee to enter. Here’s the area it would cover:

Click for a larger image.

But this may well be too little, too late: Germany already has 60 functioning low emissions zones. In more positive news, following earlier blustering denials of scientists’ data, last November London’s mayor Boris Johnson finally admitted that Oxford Street’s high NO2 levels were not, in fact, an “urban myth”.
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