Forget Saharan dust – London’s air can be as pure as the Alps

We know that there are 4,300 lives in London alone that are brought to a premature close by this pollution. We know it is intolerable – and we also know that we can beat it. We are putting in measures to cut emissions and cut pollution of all kinds.

Just in the last six years (to pick a period entirely at random) we have seen a 20 per cent reduction in London’s emissions of nitrous oxide – one of the nastiest and most damaging forms of air pollution – and a 15 per cent reduction in the most baleful forms of dust, the so-called PM10s and PM2.5s. We need to go further and faster, with rapid and compulsory use of the very best new technology.

We should be clear about the vision and the ambition. Our air quality, in spite of everything, is far better than it was in the 1950s; and it is worth remembering that the Great Smog of 1956 killed 12,000 people. We need to make a similar qualitative leap today. We should be aiming for the best, the cleanest air in any major conurbation.

On a cold autumn morning I want London air to be alpine in its freshness. On a gorgeous spring day it should be like champagne. We want people to come here from rural areas, afflicted as they are by diesel-powered intensive agriculture, just to fill their lungs with the pure air of Hyde Park Corner.

To achieve that goal, we need to continue the relentless drive to reduce pollution. The best and fastest way to cut non-vehicular NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) is to retrofit homes, reducing the huge toxic output of badly insulated central heating systems. We have already helped improve 400,000 such homes in London, and we are doing hundreds of thousands more.

But you won’t tackle air pollution in a great global city unless you also tackle your vehicle fleet – and here we are proposing truly radical steps. It would be fair to say that we have not been assisted in our campaign by some more or less useless EU standards for vehicle emissions.

As Nick Clegg would no doubt confirm, the EU Commission has taken on the job of deciding what kind of exhaust fumes are allowed in this country and across the rest of the continent. The trouble is that the standards adopted (called “Euro 4” and “Euro 5” etc) have not worked.

That is to say, the motor manufacturers have been able to diddle the Commission: the cars and trucks have appeared to conform on the test tracks; but when it comes to everyday use, on real streets, it is a different story. That is not a policy failure of this government, or of government in London: they are EU standards, proposed and promulgated by Brussels – and they haven’t done the job. Which makes it doubly absurd that Brussels is proposing to “fine” the UK £300 million for excess NO2, when Brussels must bear some blame for the breach.

But never mind Brussels! We can do it on our own – and far better. We already have the cleanest, greenest new bus of its kind in the world – made in the UK, and on our streets in ever growing numbers. Why shouldn’t we have a British-built electric bus, with zero tailpipe emissions? There is no reason at all why not: indeed, I have just seen the designs for a new electric double-decker, which we had always thought was impossible.

We have set a deadline of 2018, by when all new taxis in London must be capable of zero emissions in the central zone, and by 2020 we will have the first ultra-low emission zone anywhere in the world – in which all new vehicles registered for use in the centre of town will have to be capable of moving without any fossil fuel emissions at all.

We are embarked on an irreversible programme to make London’s air positively superb. Alas, we cannot control the sands of the Sahara. Perhaps the officials of the EU Commission could make themselves useful by standing over the desert, and threatening to fine it if it moves.

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