What kills twenty times more people than road traffic collisions, and is second only to smoking as a cause of death?
Photo: Alon Aviram
A failure to tackle levels of air pollution in Bristol – which are in breach of EU law – has been implicated in at least 5.9% of the deaths which occur in the city every year. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the council, 188 people died from particulate pollution in 2010, as well as 52 additional hospital admissions for breathing difficulties and 42 for heart problems. Yet, in comparison to car accidents or smoking, it is a threat which receives little publicity.
The council are clearly aware of how important the issue of air pollution is. Along with the 2014 report, across the city monitoring stations provide real time data on pollution levels. The frequent traffic gridlocks in the city are hard to ignore for the public too, although the link to serious health implications isn’t widely known.
“I am not sure how many members of the public would be aware [of the connection],” says Dr Jo Barnes, a research fellow in Air Quality Management based at University of the West of England, “In short, no, I don’t think that Bristol City Council are doing enough to specifically highlight the public health threat of air pollution amongst the public.”
Action at the local level
At the close of last year, central government got involved in the issue when Defra announced they planned to improve air quality by introducing ‘Clean Air Zones’ in five cities; Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Southampton and Nottingham. Other cities, such as Bristol, have been excluded from these plans on the grounds that modelling shows their pollution limits should comply with EU law by 2020. An environmental law firm, Client Earth, are currently challenging Defra on both the way they have carried out this modelling and on the assumption we should wait until 2020 to breathe fresh air.
Mayor Ferguson promised at the beginning of 2015 that the Green Capital year would serve as a stir to action. There was a promising start. During the handover from Copenhagen, the previous title holder, Bristol hosted an Air Quality ‘master class’ looking at best practice in tackling the issue.
Although valuable in raising awareness and bringing people together for discussion, some people, including Dr Barnes, have questioned how much actual change in air quality has occurred during the year.
One tangible output of the Green Capital year is that First Bus, a major sponsor of the year, are investing £13 million in purchasing 59 buses with ‘Euro 6’ engines which are 14 times cleaner than those they are replacing.
Just earlier this month at the full council budget meeting, a Green party amendment, backed by Lib Dems, to the Council budget to fund a Clean Air Zone in Bristol was voted down by the Labour and Conservative groups.
A technological approach?
The award also helped the city to attract funding, including £1.4m to test hybrid electric buses. At the end of January 2016 two buses fitted with cutting edge ‘geofencing’ technology were introduced to the 72 bus route. This allows the buses to switch from running on diesel to running on electricity when driving through more polluted regions of town. In less polluted zones a diesel engine is used, which also recharges the battery. This is a start, but with 2,661 buses and coaches registered in the city, there is an awfully long way to go.
At the end of January it was also announced Bristol had won £7 million from the Department for Transport to promote uptake of electric vehicles. A move towards fewer exhaust pipes on Bristol’s roads is undoubtedly worth trying.
However the allocation of this funding – to provide free residential parking for electric vehicles and to allow access to specific carpool lanes – is controversial. Free parking for the owners of cars which generally retail at prices of £8,000 higher than petrol or diesel cars, seems very much like a rich man’s luxury.
“With hundreds of people dying every year, decisive action is critical.”
One of the most popular ideas for tackling the air quality issue is the establishment of a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ), similar to that in London. LEZs discourage users of the most polluting vehicles from travelling through the city centre by charging them. The Old City part of the city centre is the first zone the council has earmarked for an LEZ, the exact mechanism of which would be up for consideration.
A spokesperson for the council commented that, “Implementation of a CAZ (Clean Air Zone) in Bristol may go some way to improving air quality, however, the impact will be dependent upon the scope of vehicles covered by a CAZ and the future effectiveness of Euro emission standards, particularly in relation to diesel passenger vehicles.”
Barnes believes that only a “Zero Emission Zone” would really be effective and send the right message about the city’s ambitions. Discussions around low emissions zones have been going on in Bristol for many years now but with hundreds of people dying each year, decisive action is critical.
Other measures aimed at dealing with the city’s congestion and pollution, such as Resident Parking Zones, have provoked public backlash. If the Mayor wants to avoid the same for a low emission zone, sending a clear message of what’s at stake if we don’t act is crucial.