“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” H L Mencken Imaginary might be a little harsh, but exaggerated certainly isn’t. The latest hobgoblin is the air quality ‘crisis’, which is being used to justify more taxes on some drivers in the guise of clean air zones (CAZ) such as the ULEZ scheme in London. If the much-delayed carbon dioxide hobgoblin doesn’t get us, which we were previously using diesel to help slay, then NOx and particulates (dust) certainly will, according to the likes of London mayor Sadiq Kahn. In fact, London is where the hobgoblin meets the ‘zombie’ statistic in the form of the mayor’s false 40,000 air pollution deaths claim, which has been shot down by the likes of respiratory physiologist Professor Tony Frew, a former member of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP).
This Frankenstein’s monster of statistical constructs doesn’t refer to real people, but is derived from the estimated 340,000 life years lost by everyone in the UK as a result of an average ‘early death’ of around three days due to air pollution, all things being equal, which in reality they are not. In fact, there are a number of factors that can influence life expectancy in positive or negative ways. These include the likes of genetics, wealth, lifestyle, diet, environment, medical advances, etc. It’s clear from the increased life expectancy from birth that we enjoy as a developed nation driven by carbon fuels that the balance of all factors is strongly positive in favour of increased longevity. Professor Frew also points out that just because pollution levels have been made illegal doesn’t mean that they are dangerous. There’s a lack of publicity for the latest report from COMEAP where experts can’t agree on any link between NOx and mortality, and the latest Office for National Statistics data shows that the North-South divide for life expectancy is clearly wealth-related rather than related to air quality. Dates of birth and death are ‘hard’ data compared to junk epidemiological guesswork. Making people richer, rather than poorer with unjustified taxes, is the best way to make their lives longer and happier. As for asthma, it was identified by the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece and China BC – Before Cars. There are many potential attack triggers for people who are genetically predisposed to asthma and it’s a well-known fact that indoor air quality, where we spend 90 per cent of our time, can be many times worse than outdoors. Also, individuals with compromised respiratory systems are susceptible to spikes in poor air quality due to very specific combinations of weather conditions. To mayor Khan’s credit, he has recognised the stupidity of wood-burning stoves, which can emit 18 times as much pollution as a modern diesel car and six times as much as a diesel truck. But there is no sign yet of any wood tax or recognition of the impact of the ‘prettiest pollutant’ known as fireworks. It’s ironic that London bus shelters carry posters side-by-side advertising the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) and firework displays. If there really was an air pollution emergency or crisis, wood-burning stoves and fireworks would be top of the banned list. Regressive taxes, which is what CAZ charges are, target the less well-off who can’t afford new or newer vehicles. CAZ policies also fail to pass any cost-benefit analysis. Close to home for me personally, but not affecting my Euro 6 car, the planned Birmingham CAZ is projected to provide purely theoretical health and environmental benefits of £38m over ten years against a negative overall cost of £122m. This makes Birmingham’s EU-threatened fine of £60m for failing to tackle levels of air pollution declared illegal (by an EU we were supposed to be leaving) look like a bargain. Additionally, areas outside the Birmingham CAZ are likely to lose thousands of free parking spaces and the 6,000 free parking spaces within the zone could also face charges or restrictions. UK vehicle emissions have declined significantly over the past 40 years against a background of increased vehicle usage. The fact that urban pollution ‘hot spots’ remain can to a large extent be blamed on deliberate congestion-causing policies, which have been designed to obstruct and slow traffic. Banning all transport in London, for example, would only reduce particulate levels from the current average 14 micrograms per cubic metre to 12, the worldwide background level being 7 micrograms per cubic metre. The potential air quality benefits of a ULEZ or CAZ will therefore be insignificant. We should instead be pleased with the significant improvements in air quality that have been achieved thanks to advances in vehicle technology and look forward to continued improvement from reduced vehicle emissions driven by technology. Our tax- and restrictions-obsessed politicians should recognise the longer, happier lives that people in the UK are enjoying largely due to the economic benefits of carbon fuels. But we won’t be holding our breath waiting for that to happen!
The following article is by Paul Biggs, ABD Director and Environment Spokesperson. It first appeared in Local Transport Today, the magazine for local road traffic engineers. Paul Biggs is environment spokesman for the Alliance of British Drivers. He is a biological sciences graduate and retired cancer researcher.