It’s Not Just Cars. The Things You Never Knew Were Causing London’s Crazy High Air Pollution Levels

London has a health crisis caused directly by poor quality air. That’s what London Mayor Sadiq Khan said at the launch of the T-charge (or emissions surcharge) on Monday, which aims to tackle the capital’s toxic air by charging drivers of the most polluting vehicles up to £21.50 a day to drive in to the city centre.

The T-charge has divided public opinion, with critics accusing the scheme of targeting Britain’s poorest drivers. Others have questioned its effectiveness, with London Assembly member Shaun Bailey calling it “little more than a vanity project that will do next to nothing to improve London’s air pollution”.

Health experts such as Chris Griffiths, however, welcome the charge as a step in the right direction for tackling the serious health impacts of air pollution.

Each year more than 9,000 Londoners die prematurely because of poor quality air and road transport is the single largest source of air pollution on London’s roads.

But getting cars and other vehicles off the roads of a city that regularly surpasses legal pollution limits – this year London managed to breach its annual air pollution limit for 2017 in the first five days of January – is only going to get us so far.

On-road vehicles are estimated to cause half of the capital’s air pollution. So where else do we also need to focus attention?

Wood-burning stoves

Last winter, Khan issued a “very high” air pollution alert, advising everyone to “take precautions to protect themselves from the filthy air”. The cause? Cold, calm weather combined with a high volume of domestic wood burning.

It is estimated as much as half the pollution at some locations came from people burning wood in their homes. There are about 1.5m stoves in the UK and in London wood-burning stoves are believed to account for nearly a third of the city’s harmful particulate pollution – tiny particles in the air which can seriously affect people’s hearts and lungs.

Last month it was reported that Khan had written to environment secretary Michael Gove seeking a ban on wood burning stoves in parts of the capital.

Yet, Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that he would not seek to impose an outright ban but instead wanted to focus on making sure people burned the right materials and properly maintained their stoves, with the option of temporary bans at critical times.

The construction industry

At the heart of London’s unrelenting expansion are construction sites chugging out toxic pollutants from diesel-powered machinery such as diggers and generators.

Likewise, a significant proportion of traffic in London is generated by the construction and civil engineering industry, including some of the most polluting diesel vehicles. Roughly 15% of air pollutant emissions are from construction and demolition activity, and the machinery used in these processes.

In 2015, then-London Mayor Boris Johnson introduced standards to reduce pollution emissions from the construction industry. The new rules required all central London construction sites to replace or improve polluting equipment more than 10 years of age.

Khan has since sought to strengthen such regulations, calling for the power to set minimum emission standards for machinery such as diggers and bulldozers.

Traffic on the River Thames

The Thames is the UK’s second biggest freight port, handling more than 50 million tonnes of cargo each year. It is also a growing commuter and tourist route, currently used by more than 10 million people a year.

Despite its significance, current emission regulations only apply to new vessels and there are at least five different regulators involved in policing emissions. The result is inadequate emissions data, something the Port of London Authority is now addressing by working with the Mayor of London and Transport for London to aggregate research and develop an air quality strategy for the tidal Thames.