Air pollution – not Brexit, not Trump, the issue for 2017

Air pollution a life-threatening issue

Update 30/11/2018Guardian: ‘It’s the only way forward’ – Madrid bans polluting vehicles from city centre

Oxford/Brussels, 02/02/2017.Last month I crossed the Channel by sea as usual. Outside Brussels, the temperature was minus 8 degrees, with old snow on the grass. By the time I reached Calais the temperature had risen to zero and a weak sun was cheering the portside. Yet I found the sea crossing disturbing.

Out on deck the sky was clear and blue, and the water a flat calm. But the sea did not look healthy. To me the sea surface looked strange; it was rolling gently but had an oily sheen – this was in the middle of the Channel, where I have sailed on small yachts and know the sea at close hand.

To the East over Belgium and Holland a dark mist clung to the coastline. It didn’t look like normal cloud; more a suspension of black and grey particles in the air that looked vaguely menacing. It had the sort of look you’d imagine on the borders of Mordor.

Why did I find this disturbing? Because I subscribe to the Belgian government air-quality monitoring system, which sends out regular warnings when pollution levels approach or exceed EU recommended limits. The day I travelled PM10s (carbon particles) were high; but the really disturbing fact was that the warning emails were going out every day for a week (normally they are only for one or two day periods).

Belgium’s air pollution warnings are becoming more and more frequent every year (this one is typical). Usually PM10 and PM2.5 (very fine particulates considered extremely dangerous), the more severe ones tend to cover a belt across Northern Flanders and around Ghent. But I had never experienced them lasting for 5 days or more; I believe that what I saw out at sea resulted from that sustained air pollution.

We know the consequences of air pollution are disastrous for people living underneath the smog. While probably not as severe as the smogs we have seen recently in northern China, there can be no doubt that the long-term effects will be similar. A rise in disease, cancers, breathing difficulties, heart problems and early death, and all the associated costs for society that such conditions bring.

I’ve already written about my own feelings on the issue (see Diesel car emissions the result of government failures of judgement). As a motorcyclist I tend to notice polluting cars far earlier than other motorists, and I am noticing more and more vehicles that – quite simply – stink. They may be newish looking vehicles, but follow them and the air behind tastes strange.

Dirty cars the culprit

Is this normal? No. Because I can follow buses and large articulated trucks on the roads and notice nothing. But the culprit vehicles, that I call the ‘dirty-cars’ and may be quite modest in size, force me to move away immediately. And I notice that the drivers of other vehicles following these dirty-cars start to behave strangely; moving around on the road, accelerating past quickly or simply stopping.

I believe that air pollution around our roads and cities is rising rapidly. Across Europe, we have relied on the weather to blow the issue away. But of course pollution is not blown away, it is simply moved somewhere else. And when we have still conditions or the kind of temperature inversions that are typical with low cloud and still air, the problem becomes more apparent.

And that problem is, I believe, that our environment is becoming saturated with pollutants, to a level beyond the atmosphere’s normal ability to cope. I think that air pollution levels will continue to worsen for the foreseeable future.

I cannot claim to be a green angel myself; I have driven all of my adult life. But in mitigation, I would point out that I have consciously tried to reduce my carbon footprint in the last 10 years. I ride a motorcycle when the weather permits; they are lighter on the world’s resources. I have cut my driving to 5,000 miles a year or less (sometimes 1,000 miles in a year). And I use a bicycle or public transport as much as possible.

Air pollution is a transport problem

While heavy industry does pollute, there is no doubt now about the major contribution made by road vehicles to worsening air quality. Across great swathes of continental Europe, diesel cars have loaded the atmosphere with fine carbon particles.

The problem was recognised by Greenpeace as far back as the 1990s. When in 1995 I wanted advice on a company car, a Greenpeace spokesman told me that, while they would always recommend a bicycle, if you had to have a car then diesel fuel had advantages for long distances because it used less fossil fuel, whereas petrol was cleaner if I had to make short trips into the city. In fact, he said, diesels should be banned from cities completely.

He was making a point about the risks to human health from carbon particulates. With the huge rise in the number of diesel vehicles on the roads, thanks to an approach promoted by both European institutions and governments, those risks have become a mushroom cloud.

Yet those same European institutions are concerned enough about pollution to enforce ever tighter limits on emissions from new vehicles, starting with road vehicles and now extending to rail locomotives and ships. The English Channel will soon be subject to such tight emissions limits that for cross-channel ferry operator P&O, three out of the five ships on the Dover – Calais route will have to be decommissioned in the next five years.

I believe that most people still value the environment – we want to do the right thing to ensure that the air smells fresh, that the birds, bees and butterflies continue to bring the joy of small things in our immediate surroundings. I do myself, and maintain a wild garden to that end, yet I cannot remember the last time I could smell new-mown grass.

Which is why the Dieselgate affair aroused such universal outrage. When individuals, cities, regions and even countries are all trying desperately to improve the quality of the air we breathe, that some industry executive or apparatchik should devise ways of cheating the tests used to preserve our health is unconscionable. I’m not sure that prison sentences for a few scapegoated individuals is penalty enough.

And why I am not surprised that the mayors of major cities across Europe such as Berlin, Paris, London and many more are talking of banning diesel cars from their precincts. I wonder why it took them so long to realise that government and the auto industry cannot be trusted to deal with the problem.

Of course I know exactly why. As a Brussels-based journalist I’ve understood for years the lobbying power of the automotive industry. Automotive manufacturers such as VW/Audi, Renault and many more maintain large teams of lobbyists who circle around the European Commission and the European Parliament like hungry sharks.

Their presence is not entirely sinister. The European Commission’s Research Directorate has sponsored very many projects over the years trying to reduce emissions from automotive engines, both diesel and petrol. It was one of those projects (NOFISDI, 1997) that gave rise to the common-rail injection system, the basis of more efficient diesel engines ever since. Two European manufacturers involved in that project were able to steal an early march on their competitors.

However from that point onwards, European manufacturers, governments and institutions have cooperated to promote the virtues of the diesel engine on the basis of fuel efficiency. Unsurprising, since greater fuel efficiency means a smaller fuel bill for the country as well as the individual motorist. More disturbingly, those same actors also glossed over the well-understood risks of greater particulate pollution (PM10 and PM2.5) by promoting the fitting of particulate traps to new diesel vehicles.

Diesel engines have consequently become the motor of preference for much of Europe. In countries such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, diesel-engined cars represent as much as 80% of the market, to the extent that if you wish to sell a petrol-fuelled vehicle, you have to accept a reduced secondhand value.

Only in Britain, until recently, was there greater resistance to the use of diesel fuel for cars. I am not certain of the reasons why, but I can vouch for the results. My personal experience is that the air, along and around major roads in the UK, is generally cleaner than on continental Europe.

Dieselgate opened our eyes

Only in 2016, with the arrival of the Dieselgate scandal and its consequences, were our eyes finally opened. Much like the story of the emperor who had no clothes, it was a small US campaigning group that finally began to convince people, and governments, that something was missing in the air we were breathing.

What was missing, of course, was freshness. Air that actually had some quality to it, that you could breathe without coughing, where you could actually smell the scent of flowers and freshly cut grass. Being able to smell the surrounding countryside was something that I took for granted in my youth.

I believe that, without us realising it, it is an experience we have lost. Last summer I was invited to a friend’s house one fine evening for a BBQ. Wonderful, you would think. Eating outside in the fresh air on a fine Summer’s evening. Yet my friend’s house is situated on the Eastern side of Brussels. And the prevailing wind direction in Europe is a westerly.

At one point in the evening I suggested to him, gently, that perhaps the air quality was not all it might be. At which point he expostulated violently, rejected my suggestion and took a deep breath of air just to prove how fresh it was. Then he began coughing – it would have been funny were it not so tragic.

The reality is that in Belgium, where diesel vehicles of all kinds predominate, the major cities and large parts of the countryside are plagued at regular intervals by toxic clouds (usually NOx) that breach European safety limits. Central Flanders in the area around Ghent appears to suffer particularly. There is no warning, only that from Belgium’s network of air-quality monitoring stations, that send emails out warning of an approaching smog event.

What makes these toxic clouds worse is that you cannot see them. You will only know once you are inside them, at which point the elderly, the infirm and those with cardio or pulmonary problems are in particular danger.

Why a focus in 2017?

The effects of the Dieselgate saga are still rumbling on at government level and in the automotive markets. Personally I believe that if one of the results is a greater preference for petrol fueled vehicles, that will be no bad thing. These engines bring other kinds of pollution, but they do not pump out the same levels of NOx as diesel.

Of course the real lesson, with which I am sure organisations like Greenpeace and FoE will completely agree, is that the car makers should be switching away from fossil-fuel engined vehicles completely. The debate between all-electric and the hydrogen fuel-cell has been going on for some years, while the technology of hybrid engines has also advanced.

Which is why the recent UK government statement that it will provide stronger support for alternative-fuelled and electrical vehicles is so welcome. As we have seen recently with the new President of the United States, when a government sets a firm lead, automakers can respond.

But I think what is going to concentrate minds in 2017 is what is happening right now in China. As I write, we could not have a better illustration of the consequences of unregulated growth in industrial production and road traffic. The combination of old, polluting industry and huge growth in traffic volumes has produced a toxic atmosphere over an area covering thousands of miles across northern China. The wealthy are buying air purifiers and sending their children to live elsewhere. The less well-off try to shelter indoors.

The Chinese situation shows only too clearly what we are doing to our environment, everywhere in the world. The levels of air pollution are now so serious, not just in China but across Europe, that they threaten life itself. The fresh air of my youth has gone. And the casual attitudes of the present, waiting for the wind to blow it away, no longer work. The wind will only blow the pollution somewhere else, the rain will wash it into the rivers and the seas. We already know that air pollution threatens our fellow passengers on this planet; the birds, the insects and the plants. Now we are beginning to see only too clearly that it threatens the very existence of the human species.

The traffic has to go

Back in the 1990s I visited the Cape Verde islands, and was struck by the general absence of motor vehicles at that time. The towns and cities were in effect pedestrianised, there were so few vehicles that pedestrians walked around freely, and the occasional vehicle had to proceed slowly, using its horn to gain passage.

Cape Verde was a developing economy, and you may say that such a target (i.e. getting rid of the cars) is impossible in car-clogged Western society. But it is an objective worth striving for nonetheless. Because if we continue as we doing, then the present baby-boomer generation will prove the exception in human longevity.

Future generations, especially those brought up in urban surroundings, will live shorter lives, unable to smell fresh air and condemned to asthma as the universal complaint for babies. Diseases such as emphysema and other pulmonary and cardiac problems will likewise be commonplace among the elderly.

I hate to think that future generations will not be able to enjoy the fresh air of my youth (in which very few people owned cars). If they are to survive and thrive, then we need to do something about our road traffic, especially in the cities.

Which government is going to be courageous enough to try?

© Philip Hunt, 2017.

Update, 05/02/2017. Since writing this piece, I’ve been informed that the cities of Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent are all considering how to restrict access to diesel-powered vehicles within the city limits. Antwerp is (reportedly) actively examining the problem, while Ghent wishes to work within a regional approach. Brussels, I am told, considers the problem an intractable one, as there are so many diesels operating within the city already. It is worth noting that Antwerp and Ghent are often within the ‘red’ (or most dangerous) zone in Flanders when air pollution breaches EU limits.

Update, 05/03/2017. The European Parliament’s Dieselgate committee concluded on Tuesday 28 February 2017 that administrative failures by national governments and the European Commission had created the environment for emissions cheating. “Dieselgate could have been avoided if member states and the commission had followed European law,” Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy MEP said. However, he said, the real focus should be on public health rather than consumer deception. “The biggest victims of this scandal are not Volkswagen or Volkswagen car owners, it’s the people who live in the streets where these cars drive and where they emit 20, 30, 40 times the legal limits,” he said. Read more:


Guardian: Air pollution more harmful to children in cars than outside, warns top scientist

Guardian: (UK) Government’s air quality plan branded inadequate by city leaders

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