An official from the Greater London Authority (GLA) has rejected claims that Mayor Boris Johnson is attempting to weaken EU air quality laws.
Speaking at a conference in Brussels on Tuesday (January 8), Elliot Treharne, air quality manager at the GLA, said that the Mayor and GLA were merely pushing for “more flexibility” where targets were hard to achieve.
He explained that flexibility involved taking into account external factors over which cities and regions have no control, such as transboundary pollution, rather than weakening EU standards.
Mr Treharne also defended policies on air pollution in the capital and said that suggestions that not enough action was being taken to tackle problems was “false”.
He said that, while the UK government had been very supportive of the GLA’s efforts in London, he felt that London and other regional and local authorities across Europe were “not getting enough support from national governments” and more work needed to be done to tackle pollution. He also called for more action at EU level to address emissions at source.
The comments came during a panel discussion entitled ‘Improving people’s health’, at a conference organised by the European Environmental Bureau and the Soot Free for the Climate campaign to mark the start of the EU 2013 ‘Year of Air’.
Also on the panel was Keith Taylor, Green party MEP for south east England, who was critical of Mr Johnson’s policies for improving air quality in the capital.
He said: “London has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution for any capital city in Europe and it also has concentrations of PM10 particles which breach legal limits.”
He joked: “Now, the mayor of London has an air quality strategy, which I think needs to be worked on a bit more – which is being very nice, because I’m sat next to somebody from the GLA (Mr Treharne).”
Clean Air in London (CAL) campaigner Simon Birkett, who was in attendance at the conference, also questioned the London Mayor’s attempts to push for more “flexibility” in meeting EU air quality standards.
After acquiring a letter in December signed by a number of representatives of regions in Europe, including the London Mayor, CAL claimed that this showed the Mayor was “lobbying to weaken air pollution laws”.
However, responding to these criticisms, Mr Treharne said: “There is no sense that we want to weaken the air quality laws at all. What we are actually saying is that where we are finding targets harder to achieve, there should be more flexibility.”
He continued: “Much more needs to be done in terms of protecting health as we are breaching standards, but I think it is important to challenge this idea that nothing is happening.
“In London over the last four years we’ve seen a 15% reduction in PM10 measurements and we’ve seen a 20% reduction in NOx emissions, and that’s because of a package of measures that have been put in place – London has both a congestion charge zone and a low emission zone.”
He went on to list a number of measures put in place in London over the last few years, such as emissions standards for heavy goods vehicles and taxis; strengthening of the low emission zone and the recent announcement of £20 million funding to tackle local pollution hotspots.
He said: “This is all while also working with the public health sector to raise the awareness of air quality so we can take further actions to warn people of the action they need to take to protect themselves during periods of elevated pollution.”
He added: ““We do not feel as cities and regions that we are getting enough support from national governments. But I think it is important to recognise that when political leaders are taking tough decisions and where money and resources are being spent, that something is actually happening and that is a positive thing.”
Commenting after the event, a spokesperson for the Mayor, said: “The Mayor has categorically said that he is not lobbying to weaken EU air quality standards. Rather he is requesting factors over which cities and regions have no control, such as transboundary pollution, are reflected in the compliance process. The Mayor and his officials are working with other regions to jointly lobby the European Commission on this matter, calling for more resources and greater action at the EU-level to tackle sources of emissions.”
Mr Treharne also suggested that more work was needed to promote the idea that personal choices can have an important impact on exposure to air pollution, as well as focussing on reducing emissions at their source.
He said: “There is some decent work being done at King’s College London, which is looking at the way that individual choices like the train you take, how you travel to work, and when you go out and exercise can reduce your own personal exposure. It is estimated that the introduction of the low emission zone in London, which covers 98% of the city, reduced average exposure by around 8%, whereas if you looked at personal decisions that individuals had made, that reduced average exposure by about 50%.”
He continued: “So what combination of measures do we need which obviously looks at emissions reduction at the source, but also gets the right message out to people to so they can protect themselves and make the right choices depending on their lung condition and other factors?”
The ‘Clean Air Everywhere: Blowing the winds of change into European air policy’ conference also saw a number of speeches from figures involved in air quality across Europe, including EU environment commissioner Janez (see airqualitynews.com story).