It’s been widely reported that the government has requested to delay the publication of its plan to tackle air pollution until after the General Election.
More recently, the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan made the news with a proposed charge on diesel cars, coaches, buses and taxis, something that has continued to be reported across the media. It is our view that this alone will not change the headlines on air pollution in the long term. The changes proposed do not go far enough, soon enough, to address the serious health impacts of air pollution.
In London, air pollution is double the legal limit in many areas and it is harming health. Recent research suggests that prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide or particulate pollution in the city reduces life expectancy by around 16 months. Action needs to be taken, but the London Mayor’s proposals tackle only a fraction of the problem: diesel cars account for just 5% of nitrogen dioxide emissions in central London, a key cause of pollution in the city. Commercial vehicles, the bigger culprit, won’t be tackled for another four years. With the government potentially stepping in to protect those drivers who bought diesel cars on the government’s instruction, the impact will be minimal.
What happens in the meantime? What about the pregnant women who are walking to work today, worried about the World Health Organisation’s recent warning that air pollution can impact the development of unborn children? Or the thousands of children at hundreds of schools, nurseries and colleges in London, who are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution that could cause lifelong health problems?
The good news is there are solutions – driven by the technology sector – that can tackle our exposure to air pollution today. The bad news is that this industry, which I am a part of, still has a job to do to convince transport organisers, government, and local councils that they need to be considered part of a comprehensive approach to tackle air pollution.
Broadly speaking, there are two ‘types’ of technology currently available that are aimed at cleaning the air we breathe – ‘active’ and ‘passive’. In my view, active solutions need to be the focus to create a noticeable difference to people today.
Let me explain why. Active solutions use fans or blowers to move air over the cleaning element. It directs the airflow towards where it’s needed, removing significant amounts of air pollution, and thereby decreasing exposure. The benefit of active technology is that it can be positioned in air pollution hotspots, such as bus shelters, hospitals and schools that are used every day. Independent tests have shown they can reduce exposure to pollution by up to 90%.
Passive solutions meanwhile, rely on wind to move polluted air to the technology. These include green walls, for example, or painted walls or sheets that act as filters. They can seem like the Holy Grail because they do not need electricity and can often be placed anywhere. However in reality, passive solutions have not been proven to materially improve air quality in outdoor conditions. This is because it is questionable if enough air will pass over the filter material to make a difference.
While we wait for policy changes to take effect, it’s important that all options that help reduce exposure to air pollution for Londoners and other city dwellers are considered. These solutions can’t clean an entire atmosphere (nor do they claim to) and some work better than others, but there are places where they can make a huge difference in the immediate term. It would be short-sighted to sweep them aside.
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