“Sickening” and “shameful” are just two of the words used by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan to describe the state of his city’s air quality right now.

New figures reveal that every person living in the UK’s capital city has to breathe in harmful air particles that exceed toxic levels deemed to be ‘dangerous’. The London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory paints the bleakest of pictures for every inch of London where air quality breaches World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for the most invasive and damaging type of particle, known as PM2.5.

Worse still, the large majority of London-dwellers – almost 95 per cent of them – are sucking in particles that breach this limit by more than 50 per cent. Those in the very centre of London have to cope with average annual levels that are almost double the WHO limit of 10 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air).

This is terrible news. Not only for the health of our environment, but for the health of us all. According to Greenpeace, 40,000 lives are cut short by air pollution in the UK every year – 29,000 of which are directly attributable to the presence of PM2.5 in the atmosphere (the other 11,000 caused by exposure to nitrogen exposure, largely coming from car and van exhausts).

Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. Ingesting the toxic chemicals can seriously increase the likelihood of them developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from an early age. Some say that kids exposed to nasty particulates are much more likely to grow up with reduced lung function and asthma.

Of course, poor air quality is not just a problem in London; most major, densely populated cities around the world struggle to maintain healthy air. 

In New Delhi, a thick, soupy smog is enveloping the city right now, with the readings of the Government’s air quality index hovering between 350 and 450 – indicating that the health impact of breathing the air was “severe.” (The highest reading available is 500).

Across Chinese cities the situation is improving, yet exposure to PM2.5 exposure contributed to the deaths of a staggering 1.22 million people throughout the country in 2013.

In fact, more than 2,100 cities globally currently exceed WHO-recommended levels of atmospheric particulate matter, 44 of them in the UK alone.

So what can be done to turn the tide on this archaic situation?

First, cities like London are banking on congestion charging, to drive vehicles – the biggest contributor of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide – out of the capital. Around half of PM2.5 in London is from sources outside the city. But clearly cars, vans and trucks driving and braking their way through busy city streets are making a mark.

Khan is also working toward leaving a legacy of tougher air quality laws from hit time in office. At the top of the list are diesel engines. Former 'darlings' of fuel efficiency, their image has been tarred following recent emissions scandals and exposed the health impacts to anybody seeing the black smoke spewing out of a sooty exhaust. 

Diesels are being targeted with a so-called T-charge, charging older, more polluting vehicles if they want to enter central London. And this is the first step towards an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), an area within which most vehicles will need to meet exhaust emission standards or pay a daily charge to travel. When it comes into force on April 8th, 2019, the ULEZ will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week within the same area as the current congestion charging zone.

Some form of congestion charging also exists in Stockholm, Singapore, Milan and Gothenburg, as well as a handful of smaller towns such as Durham in England, Znojmo in Czech Republic and Valleta in Malta.

Then there are the cities banning cars altogether. Norway’s Oslo plans to permanently ban all cars from its city centre by 2019, replacing 35 miles of roads previously dominated by cars with bike lanes. In Paris, which previously experimented with car-bans by refusing entry to vehicles with even-numbered plates for just one day back in 2014 when pollution fell by 30 per cent, officials continue to discourage driving in the city centre. Now, all drivers with cars made before 1997 are not permitted to drive in the centre on weekdays.

In Mexico City, a rotating system based on licence plate numbers determines which cars are permitted to drive into the city centre two days every work week and two Saturdays a month. The policy applies to an estimated two million cars and helps to mitigate the city’s high smog levels.

Alongside vehicles, wood-burning stoves, construction and city-based machinery are also to blame for our ever-worsening air pollution. In London, Khan has revealed plans to limit the use of wood-burning stoves from 2025, and tighten up regulations to make sure all new stoves from 2022 are as clean-burning as possible. Inspired by global efforts like the clean cookstoves movement, the design of the stove can actually have a big impact on how complete, and therefore clean the combustion is, dramatically cutting levels of smoke. 

Meanwhile, Non-Road Mobile Machinery regulations used across Europe aim to keep construction equipment up to date and fitted with technology to limit resultant emissions at building sites.

Making our cities and towns more liveable, through better design, greater use of public space and parks, and prioritising the use of bicycles and walking over driving, is going to be crucial. For example, architects have drawn up plans for a new residential area in the Chinese city of Chengdu with streets designed so that people can walk anywhere in 15 minutes. In fact, only half the roads in the 80,000-person city will allow vehicles.

In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where pedestrian-only zones have been dominating since the 1960s, officials plan to build a superhighway for bikes that will stretch to surrounding suburbs. The first of 28 planned routes opened in 2014, and 11 more will be completed by the end of 2018. The city has also pledged to become completely carbon-neutral by 2025.

Even London’s busiest shopping district around Oxford Street will wave goodbye to vehicles by 2021.

Given our knowledge of the health impacts of air pollution it cannot be right that nine million people a year die as a result of particulates ignorantly being pumped into the atmosphere. That’s roughly the population of New York City. However, the widespread adoption of new technologies, vehicles and plant, driven by regulation or otherwise, will take time. Getting cities back to purer air is absolutely possible, but with hundreds of millions of people worldwide at risk of poor health, time is not on our side.

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