One-Way Street

The High Court judgement on air pollution is an opportunity to rethink our whole transport system.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th November 2016

The government’s defeat in the High Court last week was devastating – but I’m not talking about the Brexit judgement. The environmental lawyers ClientEarth sued it over air pollution for the second time, and for the second time won. After trying every trick in the book to continue poisoning the British population, the government will now have to take action.

This will mostly consist of designating more clean air zones, in which diesel engines will be restricted. After 18 years of promoting diesel, that’s quite a reversal. In several city centres, we will be entitled to inhale the attar of roses and essence of orange blossom that wafts out of petrol engines. Outside the clean air zones, you are politely requested to die quietly.

I’m not dissing the judgement – far from it. Air pollution has been described by the World Health Organisation as a public health emergency, yet it’s treated in most countries as a public health afterthought. Pollution is linked to heart attacks, strokes, lung and bladder cancers, low birth weight, poor memory and attention in children, low verbal IQ, faster cognitive decline among elderly people and the earlier onset of dementia. In the UK it is believed to cause between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths a year; in London, it may kill more people than smoking does.

If as many service men and women were killed in Britain’s wars, politicians and editors of every hue would be outraged. But preventing these deaths means confronting both the car industry and the sacred freedoms of the motorist, so those with power treat them as sad but unavoidable collateral damage.

Let me give you an idea of how seriously the government takes this issue. Diesel cars would produce even more pollution were it not for their diesel particulate filters (DPFs). A car from which a DPF has been removed cannot be legally driven, but some people resent them, believing they affect performance. On eBay at the moment, 190 British traders are selling DPF delete kits, whose purpose is to thwart, bypass or remove the filters. That these kits are on open sale suggests there has been no meaningful effort to stop this practice.

When governments take an issue seriously, they seek to quantify it. When they couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss, they scarcely bother to collect data. Assessing the health risks of pollution means measuring the level of exposure. This varies from one street to the next. One estimate suggests that 3000 schools in Britain are likely to suffer pollution levels above the legal limit. Yet the government lists just 155 monitoring sites across the country. In the West Midlands, where 5 million people live, there are six. There are 10 in London and one apiece in Edinburgh, Bristol, Doncaster and several other cities. In most British towns, there are none.

But while the judgement will force the government to pay more attention, its response is certain to be both piecemeal and faint. There is no sustained political pressure for anything better. The report on air quality published by a House of Commons committee earlier this year is remarkable for the contrast between the ferocity of its criticism and the feebleness of the changes it proposes.

For example, it proposes a car scrappage scheme, but only for people who want to swap their old bangers for new bangers. Yet the same report points out that 75% of the particulate emissions vehicles produce come from their tyres, brakes and erosion of the road surface. In other words, every motor vehicle, including electric cars, can damage your health. So why not pay people to replace their old cars with no car at all, by issuing the incentive in the form of public transport tokens?

Bicycles are mentioned only in passing. But given that over half the car journeys in this country are less than five miles, that cycle provision is cheap by comparison to other transport options and that Britain suffers from an epidemic of unfitness, why not aim to make the bicycle our primary means of transport? Sorry – this is a one-way street. Significantly reducing the cars on the road appears to be unthinkable.

It’s not as if local pollution is the only harm that cars inflict. The materials required to build them ensure that all vehicles contribute to climate change and wider environmental damage. The noise they produce is a major cause of stress. While the police are quick to respond to complaints about anti-social neighbours and loud music, most forces are utterly useless at enforcing vehicle noise limits. YouTube is awash with videos explaining how to make your car louder or how to remove the baffles from your Harley-Davidson, some of which have been watched hundreds of thousands of times. On eBay you can buy “loud pipes” for your Harley, which can bring the roar up to 100dB – enough to damage hearing.

In some parts of the country, as I found when I lived in mid-Wales, doctoring your car’s exhaust appears almost to be a test of manhood. On the rare occasions when police have sought to enforce noise limits, they’ve discovered that modified exhausts can produce 107dB – equivalent to a pneumatic drill. I can testify that a convoy of these cars speeding past your house 20 times in one night is not a formula for peace of mind.

A study in Bristol shows how cars slash the social fabric like so many knives. On streets with light traffic, people tend to know more of their neighbours, have richer relationships with them and allow their children to be more independent than on streets with heavy traffic. Cars kill community. The death of community kills well-being.

As for what happens to us when we sit behind the wheel, it would be surprising if this did not change the way we behave and the way we think. When we drive, society becomes an obstacle to be wished away. Cars, I believe, encourage the extreme individualism that often makes a sense of common purpose hard to achieve.

I don’t deny the freedom and convenience they offer, but while everyone is happy to acknowledge this, we seem almost incapable of recognising the downside, except in the narrowest terms. Last week’s ruling gives us a chance to ask the big questions, urgent but scarcely visited, that surround this issue. Let’s not blow it.