By Dr Anthony Horton
What hope is there for Paris if we’ve learnt nothing from the 1952 London Great Killer fog?
According to a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review, researchers from Kings College London announced earlier this year that pollutant concentrations in Oxford Street in Central London exceeded the 2015 annual limits in the first four days of this year. Despite this scenario being played out across other London streets, Mayor Boris Johnson will not be introducing more stringent air quality policies/legislation until 2020.
The centrepiece of Johnson’s 2020 actions is an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) which is hoped will reduce the pollution load from “dirty vehicles” and in turn, cut the number of premature deaths related to air pollution exposure. Owners of polluting vehicles will be fined 100 British pounds if they drive into most areas in central London.
London is particularly vulnerable to natural winter fogs as it is surrounded by low hills with marshes on its outskirts and a river running through it. As a result of its topography, temperature inversions are common. Classically, air temperature decreases away from the earth’s surface. If you ever board an aircraft and watch the flight path on your screen, you may recall this from the temperature readings that are posted across the display. In an inversion however, the opposite happens and warm air traps cold air below it. If you want to visualise a temperature inversion, imagine your city being surrounded by a box of some kind with a lid. Essentially, the lid being closed down on the box is the inversion-and any pollutants from chimneys, smoke stacks and other sources below it are essentially trapped.
A “pea souper” as London were sometimes referred to, were so thick that people couldn’t see their own feet. As London grew in size and population, such fogs increased in frequency and persisted for longer and longer periods of time. For a number of decades, successive Parliamentary laws were watered down to the point that they were effectively useless. Fines were no deterrent, and Magistrates reportedly felt sympathy particularly for smaller companies who couldn’t afford to update furnaces to more efficient models.
The British people loved their open fires and shunned closed stoves which were popular in Germany. Politicians did not have the courage to ban coal use and legislate the use of gas or electricity instead. Fast-forward to modern day London, and the Government is reducing subsidies for wind and solar farms so as not do upset rural voters which these facilities are typically constructed.
In 1952 the “Great Killer Fog” lasted for five days and killed approximately 4000 people. Following the heinous devastation of the Blitz, such an event was the last thing London needed. I can remember sitting in Climate and Atmospheric Science lectures at University and seeing reports/images of this event. I can also recall the impact that footage and discussion had on me. It was certainly one of the influences on the direction of my studies and ultimately my career choice.
A Clean Air Act was passed by Parliament 4 years after the event with the aim of controlling domestic pollution sources by introducing “smokeless zones”-areas in which smokeless fuels had to burnt. Following the introduction of the Act, domestic emissions decreased as a result of smoke control areas, the use of electricity and gas increased, cleaner coals were burnt, power stations were relocated to rural areas and tall chimney stacks were used on power stations.
The Environment Committee of the London Assembly labelled Johnson’s delaying acting on air quality until 2020 as inexcusable, based on an estimated 4000 premature deaths per year. Conservatives are reportedly concerned that bringing Johnson’s plan forward would not realise sufficient benefits that justify additional costs and restrictions on vehicle owners or the scale of the impact on the London economy.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Johnson stated that introducing the ULEZ was unreasonable before Euro 6 vehicles are widely available and people and businesses had sufficient time to prepare. The London Health Commission and the Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians have called for the ULEZ to be implemented earlier than 2020, should cover a wider areas, be based on stricter standards and include stronger incentives.
The situation Boris Johnson finds himself in is rather interesting given what has recently been announced here in Australia. The Turnbull Liberal Government recently announced a review of vehicle emissions and as part of their announcement, Euro 5 vehicle emission standards would be implemented for light and heavy vehicles. Euro 6 standards are also reportedly being considered.
For all of the criticism of Boris Johnson, at least he has announced a plan to introduce a zone within which heavier polluting vehicles will be fined for entering-as part of long term plan to effectively phase the use of such vehicles out. I can’t imagine any politician at any level in Australia having the courage to suggest a plan along the lines of Johnson’s-and we are certainly all the poorer for it-from environmental, health and economic perspectives. Such a lack of courage and conviction doesn’t really bode well with Paris practically around the corner does it? If we haven’t learnt in 60 years, how can anything of real substance be learnt in the 19 days until the meeting and/or applied over the 12 days of the meeting itself?
This article was originally published on The Climate Change Guy as What hope is there for Paris if we’ve learnt nothing from the 1952 London Great Killer fog?
About the author: Anthony Horton holds a PhD in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours and a Diploma of Carbon Management. He has a track record of delivering customised solutions in Academia, Government, the Mining Industry and Consulting based on the latest wisdom and his scientific background and experience in Climate/Atmospheric Science and Air Quality. Anthony’s work has been published in internationally recognised scientific journals and presented at international and national conferences, and he is currently on the Editorial Board of the Journal Nature Environment and Pollution Technology. Anthony also blogs on his own site, The Climate Change Guy.