Traffic in central London. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has declared war on London’s air pollution, announcing new charges to be imposed on the most polluting vehicles. AFP PIC

IF the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has his way, he could set a precedent, which would be difficult and inexpedient for his counterparts in other major cities of the world, including Kuala Lumpur, to ignore.

Khan is championing the fight against poor air quality, especially emissions of nitrogen oxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) given off by cars and trucks with diesel engines. The World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Environment Agency (EEA) have all warned that poor air quality is the single largest environmental health risk facing humanity. And, it respects neither class nor level of affluence.

Perhaps, the ability to breathe in reasonable quality air should be designated as a human right like others, such as the right to a basic education, clean water, access to the Internet and so on, and should be included in an updated United Nations Human Rights Charter. Perhaps, the initiatives of Khan and other mayors may one day lead to my hope of a world where decent air quality is a right, and not the outcome of policies based on vested interests, governance incompetence and short-termism or ideological idiosyncrasies.

Khan is planning the world’s first “Toxicity Charge” or “T-Charge” of £10 (RM55) for London on Oct 23 for all vehicles, except those with exemptions or discounts. This is on top of the current £10 Congestion Charge.

The Emissions Surcharge, the scientific euphemism for the T-Charge, is a precursor initiative to the introduction of the proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and its related vehicle emission standards in September 2020.

While these are subject to final consultations with stakeholders, the Mayor has set the ball in motion with Transport for London (TfL), the city’s transport executing agency.

Khan’s plans fall short of banning diesel vehicles. Perhaps, he has fallen prey to the British pastime of effecting behavioural change by hitting consumers where it hurts the most — their pockets. Contrast this with the mayors of Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens, who are going that extra mile by recently declaring at a meeting in Mexico City that they will stop the use of all diesel-powered cars and trucks in their cities by 2025. Campaigners in London have urged Khan also to commit to phase out diesel vehicles from the capital by 2025.

The aim is simple — to improve air quality by incentivising the use of alternative vehicles — low emission, electric, hybrid, ethanol and hydrogen — and by promoting walking and cycling. Poor air quality has been the bane of modern urban living with Delhi, Beijing and Mexico City widely regarded as the most polluted in the world.

The statistics are depressing. The WHO says that over three million deaths every year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. The EEA has stressed that air pollution “kills 467,000 a year” in the European Union. In the United Kingdom, the Royal College of Physicians projects that poor air quality is responsible for some 40,000 deaths a year.

The use of diesel and for that matter biodiesel (albeit at much lower levels) has come under scrutiny in recent times as major contributors to poor air quality through the production of NO2 and PM. Today, WHO, UNEP, EEA, the British heart and lung foundations and a host of other stakeholders are lobbying decision-makers to take urgent action to arrest a catastrophic decline in air quality.

Doctors warn that very fine soot PM can penetrate all parts of the lungs, and can contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory illness and death. NO2 can help form ground level ozone and this can exacerbate breathing difficulties, even for people without a history of respiratory problems.

There are those who stress that diesel is being unfairly vilified, given that different makes of vehicles emit varying levels of PM. Petrol engines, too, emit PM if not NO2. Others talk about the economic cost of eliminating diesel vehicles. These are false arguments and economies of scale. The real cost is lost opportunity costs, especially in future aggregated medical costs, loss of employment man hours and therefore productivity, increased social security costs and the huge quality of life deficit suffered by millions who are affected.

As someone who suffers from chronic asthma and hypersensitive airways, I can vouch for the devastating effect diesel pollution from cars, buses, coaches, taxis and delivery vehicles has on me. True, this is exacerbated by other pollutants, such as smoking, aerosols, air fresheners, all sorts of chemicals and even strong perfumes. But, it is diesel PM that hits a sufferer the most. Even the slightest whiff can spoil my day by inflaming my airways and precipitating breathlessness. In extreme cases, this can lead to respiratory distress and an attack, which can be fatal. The first thing that my chest consultant advised me when I first saw her was: “Do not underestimate asthma. It can kill.”

Good air quality and public policy measures to maintain best practice should become an essential component of a suitability rating of any city in today’s world.

The tragedy is that most deaths linked to poor air quality are preventable. Is it yet another example of US Senator John Fullbright’s prophetic axiom: “It is one of the perversities of mankind that man has a greater capacity to endure disasters than to prevent them.”

Let us hope that the initiatives of Khan and his colleagues in Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens do live up to the good senator’s very human observation and spur on others too!

Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer.

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