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Allergy UK Q&A with Shirley Rodrigues (Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy, London)

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1. What are the current concerns about air quality in London? 

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan believes London’s toxic air is both a public health crisis and a social justice issue.

Thousands of Londoners are dying prematurely every year from long-term exposure to air pollution.  Many more suffer with other health impacts over the course of their lives. It stunts the development of young lungs, causes cancer, and increases the risk of asthma, stroke and dementia. 

Research shows that people in the most deprived parts of London, who are least likely to own a car, suffer the worst effects of harmful air pollution. Air pollution is also more likely to impact those more susceptible to health problems (such as the very young, elderly, and those already living with lung conditions). 

Over 2 million Londoners live in areas that exceed the legal limits for air pollution, of which over 400,000 are children under the age of 18, and around 200,000 are 65 years and above. With so many exposed to poor air quality and the severe health impacts that it causes, doing nothing is simply not an option. That’s why the Mayor is pushing ahead with the boldest and most ambitious plans of any major city in the world to tackle air pollution. 

King’s College London estimates that if the current trend of improvement in air quality continued, without the Mayor’s policies, it would take 193 years to bring London’s air to within legal levels. But with the action we’re taking, we can hope to achieve this goal in just six years. This means the number of schools in London in areas breaching air pollution will be reduced from over 450 today to zero in 2025.

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2. What plans do you have for improving air quality in London? 

This April, we introduced the world’s first ever Ultra Low Emission Zone, the toughest emission standard of any major city in the world. The ULEZ is the centrepiece of my campaign to clean up our dirty air and works by levying a daily charge on the oldest and most polluting vehicles entering central London. It is enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and is designed to encourage more Londoners to get out of their cars and onto public transport, to switch to cleaner vehicles, or to walk or cycle.

We expect the ULEZ to reduce harmful nitrogen oxides emissions from road transport by around 45 percent in central London. The zone will be expanded to the North and South Circulars for all vehicles and London-wide for lorries, coaches and buses in October 2021. 

We’re transforming London’s bus fleet by switching pure diesel buses cleaner alternatives. The Mayor has committed to purchasing only hybrid or zero-emission double decker buses since 2018. He aims to have a fully ‘zero emission’ bus fleet by 2037. 

Since January 2018 we no longer license new diesel taxis and we’re supporting the taxi trade to upgrade to zero emission capable vehicles. 

To help reduce children's exposure to air pollution the Mayor has audited air quality at 50 London primary schools in the city’s most polluted areas. The audits have made recommendations to reduce emissions and exposure in and around the school which include schemes to prevent ‘engine idling’ outside school gates, make local road changes, and encourage students to walk and cycle to school along less polluted routes. In addition, we’re auditing 20 London nurseries, five of which will trial new air quality filtration systems to help us better understand indoor air quality. 

The Mayor’s Air Quality Fund has supported the introduction of Five Low Emission Neighbourhoods. These span eight boroughs and aim to improve air quality and promote sustainable living. They also facilitate direct involvement with a range of local businesses. 

Earlier this year we announced a £48 million fund to support scrappage schemes that will help smaller business owners, charities and low-income Londoners scrap older, more polluting vehicles and switch to cleaner alternatives. 

The Mayor is also doing what he can to take action on non-road sources of air pollution as he believes it is important to address all key contributors to air pollution in London. This includes a Non-Road Mobile Machinery Low Emission Zone which has progressively tightening standards to ensure that machinery used on construction sites has more modern low-emission engines.

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3. How does Green Infrastructure benefit the health and wellbeing of the public? 

London’s network of green infrastructure includes everything from our fantastic parks, nature reserves and woodlands, to street trees, green roofs and gardens, as well as rivers and waterways. These are the places where Londoners can relax, exercise, play, and enjoy the capital’s natural heritage and culture. They help protect our city from the impacts of climate change and improve our air quality. 

At a city-wide level, this green infrastructure provides a huge number of benefits to public health and Londoners’ wellbeing, from supporting our mental health to improving air quality and cooling our city. For example, our research found that £950m a year in health costs are saved each year thanks to our public parks and green spaces, while the capital’s 8 million trees remove over 2,000 tonnes of pollution from the air each year. 

Even at a very local level, well designed green infrastructure can have real health benefits, for example reducing children’s exposure to air pollution by planting green barriers between school playgrounds and busy roads – the type of local projects we’re supporting through the Mayor’s £12m Greener City Fund. We’ve just launched our third round of Community Tree Planting grants. Community groups, schools, charities can apply for funding for tree planting projects today. This is part of the Mayor’s plan to help make London the world’s first National Park City this summer, and to make more than half of the capital’s area green by 2050. 

4. How can everyone contribute to improving air quality? 

There are several things you can do right away to help tackle London’s toxic air and reduce your own exposure. 

Walking and cycling where possible, offers the greatest improvement to public health and individual wellbeing. Research in Barcelona, which has broadly similar levels of pollution as London, has shown the benefits of cycling to far outweigh the risk of exposure to air pollution and road traffic accidents. We have also learnt from King’s College that cyclists are exposed to far less pollution than car drivers. 

When you’re walking and cycling you can immediately reduce your current exposure by using quieter roads with less traffic. We know that pollution levels can drop off significantly relatively short distances from busy roads. You can find a low pollution route using our Clean Air Route Finder

You can also reduce your own exposure by signing up to our air quality alerts. Alerts provided by airTEXT give air pollution forecasts three-days ahead. You can use this service to receive alerts specific to your borough by signing up at http://www.airtext.info/signup

We’re also encouraging Londoners that do need to drive in the capital to switch to low emission vehicles. You can use our Cleaner Vehicle Checker tool to find out which models produce the least amount of NOx in real-world driving scenarios.

Another area you may be able to help with is engine idling. If you drive, make sure you turn off your own engine when stationary. At the moment there are limits to what local authorities can do to enforce against idling. The powers that they have come from national regulations and they only allow a £20 penalty fine. Enforcement officers must warn drivers first and then give them at least two minutes to turn off. Some boroughs are coming up with new ways of tackling it by introducing local policies which allow larger fines (such as new £80 fines in Islington and Westminster).

Through the Mayor's Air Quality Fund we have invited boroughs to apply for a pan-London project to tackle idling. This will be delivered as an awareness campaign which directly engages with drivers, alongside a commitment from participating boroughs to enforce against idling vehicles. 

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