Thursday, February 05, 2009

Environment Committee - Conflicting Priorities

The Environment Committee met on Wednesday morning. Following my return to this body, I'm still finding my feet and coming to terms with the often rather scientific evidence we receive.

This meeting was no exception, with witnesses from King's College London and the AEA, giving us their take on the problems of air pollution.

The Dirty Man of Europe

London is often criticised for its air quality, and there is a very real threat of a fine from the European Union if things don't improve. I find the finger pointing a little surprising - back in July I spent two weeks in Sorrento and when I got off the plane at Naples, I can't say that I was struck by the cleanliness of the air... So I asked if other European cities were going to face fines too.

The experts told us that Paris, Berlin, Rome and most other European cities also have poor air quality and it is getting worse. However London is top of the pollution league because it is so much larger. So is the proposed fine in effect a tax on the size of our city rather than its air quality? Have those cunning Europeans put one over our hapless government and created another way to redistribute our wealth?

I'm never happy to see public sector organisations fined punitively, because of course the punishment isn't real - except for the taxpayer who has to foot the bill.

Poisons in the Air

There are two forms of pollution that we measure to determine air quality:

Nitrogen Dioxide is a waste product of vehicle engines and industrial processes. In high concentrations it is highly poisonous and at lower levels it has harmful effects. Over 90% of the residents of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea are exposed to dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide. In Camden and Islington this figure is over 50%.

Particulates, known as PM10s, form a very fine dust, and are produced by vehicle engines. If - like me - you live near a main road or a busy car park, you can see particulates in the greasy film of dirt on your windows. Breathing that in can't be very healthy, and PM10s are known to irritate the lungs, aggravating existing conditions.

Ozone, a third pollutant, is not measured but the experts think it should be. Made up of three oxygen molecules, ozone is produced naturally when pollution combines with bright sunlight. Unlike ordinary oxygen, ozone is poisonous.

And here is an interesting fact - Diesel engines produce nearly twice as much nitrogen dioxide as petrol engines. They produce 17 times more particulates!

Professor Frank Kelly of King's College was critical of recent policies that have encouraged a switch from petrol to diesel fuelled vehicles. Of course petrol engines produce more carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, hence the move away from them.

Whilst Saving the World, we have been poisoning ourselves!

The verdict - diesel vehicles should be encouraged in the country but in London petrol is less harmful and alternative fuels, even electric vehicles, should be the ultimate aim.

Speed v Health

We also heard that slow moving traffic pollutes more than a free flow of vehicles. Of course we don't need science to tell us that - just stand close to any queue of cars and watch the smoke pour out whilst they go nowhere.

But science has produced an interesting figure. Vehicles travelling at speeds over 20mph produce half as much pollution.

So road humps harm air quality, as do excessive numbers of traffic lights and other artificial delaying measures so beloved of local councils. The longer the hold up, the worse the air quality. The trade off between road safety and air quality is not as straightforward as was thought at one time.

With Green members promoting 20mph zones for the whole city, this fact was clearly an inconvenient truth.


With the contentious detail dealt with, the committee welcomed Kulveer Ranger, Richmond Cllr Stephen Knight and veteran campaigner John Stewart, to update us on the Heathrow proposal. With opposition now everyone's policy - even Labour disagree with Gordon Brown - a healthy degree of consensus broke out.

The councils are planning unspecified legal action, with support from the mayor's office, but with detailed plans expected in two years, this one will be decided by a new government. we will hear a lot more about Heathrow as the general election approaches...


morris hickey said...

A recent (September 2005) convert to a diesel-engined car, I also have improved fuel consumption - almost 30% more miles to the gallon. So I am not consuming quite so much of a finite resource.

As to punitive action by the EU, is this not the body that displays all the qualities of the Gestapo, Stasi, KGB and Mafia rolled into one?

weggis said...

"But science has produced an interesting figure. Vehicles travelling at speeds over 20mph produce half as much pollution."

I suspect it's not quite as simple as 20mph bad, 21mph good. What is the figure for 19mph? Or 18mph? or 21mph? Did you mean "at or over 20mph" or "approximately 20mph"?

Also, as you say, a constant speed [any speed] is less polluting than stop-start.

Can you refer us to the research/evidence please?

Peter Hulme Cross said...

That sums up the EU nicely, Morris. Unfortunately, we are also a member of it.

Whenever anyone asks for a proper cost/benefit analysis of our membership of the European Union, the answer from the Government is always the same, namely "the benefits of Britain's membership of the EU are self-evident".

The so-called "benefits" will become even more self-evident if London is eventually fined by the EU for its poor air quality - and that is a real possibility!

morris hickey said...

Yes, Mr Hulme Cross - but I'm not a single-issue politician.

Peter Hulme Cross said...

You're a bit out of date, Morris. I'm not a politician and haven't been since last May.

More importantly, I'm not single issue either and haven't been since July 2005.

judith said...

Oh Roger, not the 'carbon dioxide causes global warming' scam please!

Yes, I know we are supposed to believe that the science is all wrapped up, just because the BBC says so, but it isn't.

Life is about checks and balances - let's carefully look at how we can care for humanity and the planet in a balanced way without being swept up by currently fashionable hysteria.

Anonymous said...

nice article upon pollution issue.....

Anonymous said...

At last, the truth outs, 20mph zones are a heavy pollutant, coupled with excessive noise and vibration, yet they have been authorised around many primary schools, where the youngsters lungs are very susceptable to pollution.

They were passed as the panacea to all i'lls in 1996 when they were first thought of, 13years later and we are left with a different story, and given speeding accounts for just 3% of all accidents, speed humps in 20mph zones, were a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

I have been posting about this street clutter on another site for a while now.

Diesels, since 2000 have been cleaner, greener and more econoical, with evermore stringent emission regualtions, governing particle output.

The 'cat' in the diesel exhaust is there to catch the particles.

An exhaust gas recirculating valve (EGR)valve, reuses the burnt gas, to further burn off particulates.

Todays diesels are phenominal, they drive like petrol engines, are quieter, give better MPG, and the torque allows for effortless driving and overtaking.

BMW's M57 won many awards, as did their smaller 2litre diesel engine.

The japanese diesel engines are very good,(have been for many years)with technology improving to reduce particulate outputs all the time.

The London Emission Zone (LEZ) to cover smaller engined vans, was always a waste of money as ageing vans, with engines usually a fifth the size of HGV's (and since 2000, are much cleaner)were never the worst polluters, and would have been aged off the roads by their eighth birthday anyway.

Boris scrapping the LEZ to cover smaller engined vans, made a sound decision for hard pressed small businesses, who are the main owners of smaller engined diesel vans.

By the time europe gets to wagging it's finger, older diesel engines will not be the problem. (will we still be able to afford petrol / diesel?)

With the evidence finally being listened to regarding 20mph zones and speed humps, it really could be time to...

Clear The Streets