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What hope is there for Paris?

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?

rWdMeee6_peAbout 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.



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  1. Kaye Lee

    Unfortunately, from Australia, there is NO hope for Paris because Malcolm chose to sign it away in return for the leader’s crown. For him to make a bargain ruling out pricing carbon now or any time in the future under his leadership is the ultimate betrayal – his ambition outweighs any needs the planet may have.

  2. mars08

    Slightly off topic… I strongly suspect that there will be one particular unavoidable message spinning out of Paris…

    Do we remember when our media pundits tried to drape the cloak of “statesman” over the jabbering, loathsome, knuckle dragger? I expect they will have another go at it with Sir Pentine Smugalot…

  3. Kaye Lee

    “The centrepiece of the Turnbull government’s climate policy will deliver just one-seventh of Australia’s post-2020 carbon reduction goals, according to analysis by The Climate Institute.

    The $2.55 billion Emission Reduction Fund (ERF) – which may swell to almost $5 billion by 2030 – will likely deliver about 355 million tonnes of carbon abatement, based on the price paid in the fund’s first auction, the group said in a report.

    Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has maintained the climate goals of his predecessor Tony Abbott. These project a 5 per cent fall in Australia’s 2000 emissions by 2020 and about 19 per cent out to 2030.

    Based on government projections, the goals imply Australia will need to cut emissions by a cumulative total between 2015 and 2030 of 2.5 billion tonnes – or about seven times the ERF’s likely abatement, The Climate Institute said.”

  4. Möbius Ecko

    Turnbull only maintained Abbott’s bullshit (Turnbull’s description) climate change policy because of a deal he did with the Nationals to support him in his leadership challenge.

    Just another example of many in which Turnbull sells his principals, morals and integrity for power.

  5. jimhaz

    This article was not a subject l’ve read anything about before, so it was interesting to me.

  6. Roswell

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Mobius. This is one of the reasons why I said (on another post) that Turnbull is looking weaker by the day. He’s not a leader, he’s just a representative – representing the same interests that Abbott did.

  7. Kaye Lee


    I always learn a lot from Dr Horton’s articles. We are privileged to have his input.

  8. Chris the Greatly Dismayed

    I think John Connor’s comment piece from the SMH was a pragmatic way of looking at the Paris Climate Talks “International negotiations aren’t the main game in the climate change fight: taking action is”
    But this story shows Australia is still playing games…..”Turnbull government accused of blocking US, Japan plan to reduce coal” ….to the detriment of this country’s future.
    Euro 5 or 6 more, people have to drive less or do it with renewable electricity. Big adjustment is required.

  9. DC

    What hopeis there for Paris when Turnbull is bringing Abbots direct action as it stands to the table? What is the best outcome? Is it possible that the rest of the world can impose pressure on the Turnbull government? If not, could our lack of comittment threaten meaningfful commitments between the rest of the world? Could we be single handedly lowering the bar?

  10. DC

    Quick recap:

    *The first world conference on climate change was held in Geneva in 1979 where 400 scientists from 50 countries appealed to world leaders.

    *A major institutional milestone was the establishing the IPCC in 1988.

    *Global agreements started with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified in 1994 leading to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. However, the failure of the USA to ratify Kyoto (with the help of Australia also refusing) and then the decline in the relative share of emissions from wealthy countries, the total share of global emissions that were regulated under Kyoto reduced to only 27% of all global emissions by 2009.

    *The 2009 Copenhagen meeting was designed to negotiate a successor agreement for the post-Kyoto period with all nations in the accord including the USA and developing countries. However, deep divisions about costs and the distribution of emissions reductions prevented any binding agreement.

    *What became known as the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ – the agreement to limit global mean temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, is just a voluntary target.

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