The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, claims that his aggressive anti-car policies will help Londoners breathe and stop them dying. According to his and his officers’ many statements, 4,000 deaths are caused by air pollution in our capital city each year. “I’m not prepared to have the early death or life-limiting illness of another Londoner on my conscience,” he tweets, explaining his crusade.
At 9 years old, Ella was the first person to have London’s toxic air pollution listed on her death certificate.
‘Breathe’ is on display on the Southbank tonight.
I encourage everyone to visit this emotive and important piece of art.https://t.co/f5vWfbDiQy
— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) February 17, 2023
This is surely an urgent public health emergency – a crisis, as he puts it. “How many more children are we willing to let inhale poison?” But beyond the emotional urgency, what does the science actually say? Is our favoured form of mobility really ‘poisoning’ us?
Claims like Khan’s have always bothered me because I grew up hearing my grandparents’ stories about London’s smog, which is now gone. Its air is cleaner than perhaps at any time in the City’s history – just 2% of the levels of particulate matter are recorded today, compared with its peak in the 1890s. We no longer burn coal to heat our homes or power what remains of our industries – not in the capital at least. Technologies have given us much cleaner-burning engines, and vehicle emissions regulations have required a constant level of improvement from manufacturers.
Much may be at stake. The era of the rise of the motor car is the era of the most radical improvements in environmental and human health and wealth. Is it a coincidence? The majority of households in the country now enjoy – take for granted – a level of independence and mobility that was inconceivable to earlier generations. What if it is not a coincidence? Might Khan’s misplaced urgency be causing us to lose something that has been fundamental to our economic development and consequently our longer, healthier lives?
If it means anything to be a sceptic, it means not taking seemingly unimpeachable injunctions at face value. It means taking apart statements, such as Khan’s and those of countless local authorities that people are killed by air pollution, and that restrictions on the use of private transport such as ULEZ (ultra-low emission zone) and 15-minute cities will improve public health. And it means not being dazzled by either the authority of institutional science or cowed by cheap and shrill moral arguments. Accordingly, Climate Debate U.K. and the Together Declaration (both of which I am involved with) have jointly produced a report on the science behind Khan’s claims.
Khan’s ‘4,000 deaths’ figure comes from an analysis produced by the Environmental Research Group (ERG) at Imperial College London. The researchers indeed found in a report, commissioned by Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, which are both offices of the Mayor, that “the equivalent of between 3,600 to 4,100 deaths (61,800 to 70,200 life years lost) were estimated to be attributable to human-made PM2.5 and NO2“. But notice that this statement is already quite different to Khan’s claims of ‘4,000 deaths’, which are, in the report’s view, equivalent to between 61,800 and 70,200 “life years lost”.
Read More: The Bad Science Behind Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ Anti-Car Crusade