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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Smog-Shrouded London

Air Date: Week of

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The air pollution caused by diesel vehicles today is reminiscent of The Great Smog of 1952. (Photo: Matt Buck, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Decades ago, London suffocated under poisonous smogs –and now deadly air is back. Diesel burning vehicles are causing record levels of pollution linked to thousands of deaths in the UK. The British government could face fines from the European Court of Justice if the smog is not controlled. Host Steve Curwood and James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, a public interest environmental law organization, discuss the fight over air pollution and what comes next.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. A few days before Christmas in 1952, weather conditions and the burning of sulfur-laden coal combined to shroud London in a deadly ‘pea-souper.’ Researchers attribute as many as 12,000 deaths to that “Great Smog” 65 years ago, and once again London is enduring toxic air pollution linked to thousands of premature deaths. But this time the tailpipes of diesel vehicles rather coal fires are to blame, and London Lord Mayor Sadiq Khan now suggests children should be given gas masks to protect their lungs.

James Thornton is CEO and founder of ClientEarth, a public interest law group that has been putting pressure on the British Government to clean up the air. He joins us now from London. Welcome to Living on Earth.

THORNTON: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

CURWOOD: So, London has got an air quality problem. I mean, this isn't like the Great Smog in 1952, with the coal burning and suffocating the city and literally thousands of people dying, but, still, what exactly is creating such terrible air quality for London right now?

THORNTON: It is terrible. You were just saying it's not like the Great Smog, and in some ways it's not visible like the Great Smog, but is killing thousands of people. They're just not falling down the street like they were during the Great Smog. So, the problem now is diesel vehicles. That's the main source of the air pollution problems in London and throughout western Europe. Eastern Europe you start adding a lot of coal to the air pollution problem.

During the first half of the twentieth century, acetylene flares were used at traffic points in London like Trafalgar Square, shown above during a period of heavy smog known as a “pea souper.” (Photo: Leonard Bentley, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

What we now have makes it much harder to realize there's a problem in that it's NO2, which is a poison and invisible gas, and perfectly clear. In the old days of the pea soup fog, you could see, or actually you couldn't see across the street. Now it all looks nice but is poisonous. And the government's numbers, probably conservative, are that you have around 40,000 people a year dying early of air pollution in the UK, around 9,000 in London. So, it causes heart attacks, strokes, in children, particularly in children who are heavily exposed, it can prevent the development of their lungs. So, very serious stuff.

CURWOOD: Now, the problem, you say, is diesel. Compare that to gasoline, what we have here in America.

THORNTON: Yeah, gasoline is a much better fuel from the point of view of pollution and human health. If you think about it, diesel is like the stuff at the bottom of the barrel. It's thick and nasty and polluting, and since they refine gasoline it's a bit like cognac that comes off the top. It is cleaner. When diesel burns, it gives off masses of these fine particles of dark and very, very black particles that go right into the lungs, will go into the bloodstream, and it produces many times more of this NO2 gas than gasoline does. So, what happened is we fell in love in Europe with diesel, and it turned out to be a really bad love affair.

CURWOOD: Why did Europeans like diesel so much?

THORNTON: Well, there are a couple of theories. One is that after the war, because the Europeans decided to tax diesel at a very low amount so that farmers could use it in their vehicles, people started building diesel cars to burn diesel, and people got used to it and kept using it. In more recent times there was the idea that it produced less CO2 to burn diesel than petrol and that would be good for the climate. Overall it’s clearly very bad for human health and turns out not to be very much better for climate with modern engines.

Also, unlike petrol engines, you have these real problems. I'm sure you've heard that scandal with Volkswagen emitting through its diesel engines tremendously more of these pollutants than it's supposed to do, and that's a particular problem with diesel.

According to Eurostat’s 2016 Urban Europe Report, London has the worst traffic congestion in Europe. This is causing more air pollution and a financial cost of about $5 billion a year to Britain, says a study by Transport for London. (Photo: Connie Ma, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: As I understand it, the European Union has now ordered Britain to reduce car pollution to meet EU regulations or wind up in the European Court of Justice to face fines. How do things get to the point that the British government is now getting told by the EU to clean things up?

THORNTON: Well, it's been very reluctant to follow the law. We actually sued the British government in 2010 over this. In 2009, we wrote a very polite letter, as one does in Britain, and said to them, “You're violating the law. You have come into compliance by 2010. All these people are dying early of air pollution according to your own numbers. What are you going to do about it?” And they wrote back and said, “We intend to absolutely nothing. We know we have to come into compliance by 2010. We won't come into compliance till at least 2025 and maybe later.”
So, that was a surprising letter to receive and we then had to go to court, and we had to take it all the way up to the Supreme Court. In the Supreme Court, the UK government stood up and said, “You know, Client Earth is right. We're violating the law. It's our own numbers that they're using on the people who are dying early due to air pollution, but we have no intention of complying until at least 2025, and you, the Supreme Court, may not order us to do so.” The Supreme Court turned to us and said, “Well, the government has said they have no intention of complying with law. What would you like us to do? We’re only that Supreme Court.”

Good question, and a constitutional moment which was decided in 1802 in United States in a case called Marbury against Madison, when the Supreme Court asserted its authority to tell the government to comply with the law.

So, we said, “Forget that this is an environmental case. This could be a securities case or a public procurement case or a family law case, any type of case. If the government can walk into the Supreme Court and say, “We're only going comply with law when we feel like it,” then it's not a government under the rule of law. It's a government by fiat and diktat.” And the Supreme Court very nicely said, “Well, now you put it that way, [LAUGHS.] here is an injunction.” That was the first environmental injunction they ever gave against the government.

CURWOOD: So, why is the government dragging his feet about such a clear-cut public health issue? As you say, people are dying from it.

Volkswagen’s excess emissions generated between 2008 and 2015 will lead to 1,200 Europeans dying early, each losing as much as a decade of their life. (Photo: Richard G. Hawley, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

THORNTON: You know, it's simply a reluctance to deal with cars, I think. I remember in California a politician, back when I worked in Los Angeles at the NRDC, Tom Hayden, saying that his political mentor told him, "Tom, you'll have a great career as long as you don't mess with people's guns or their cars," and there's something of that going on I think. They don't want to mess with people's cars.

When we were in court we showed the court documents in which the government had taken its plan to the treasury, which has to approve expenditures, and the treasury said, “Well, just delay it as long as possible because we will save some money for some years.” Now, this is one of those laws because it's a human health law that explicitly says, saving money is not an option.

CURWOOD: So, what kind of plan are you talking about here, and even if there is a plan, I mean, how quickly would it be able to reduce the air pollution to a safer level?

THORNTON: Well, it's not rocket science. So, we need to move people away from diesel. There are various ways to do that. One is to prohibit diesel vehicles from coming in when pollution is high. Another is to give tax incentives so that you tax diesel higher than petrol. Another would be to give tax reductions on cleaner vehicles. And something that has been pioneered in Los Angeles and has done a very good job there over decades is to have a scrappage scheme in which, if you're one of the poorest people in one of the dirtiest neighborhoods, you get up to $16,000 to turn in your car - Enough to buy a secondhand Prius - And they've calculated that that would actually be a net economic benefit. So, that's the kind of inspirational thinking that we need, and it would work if we did it here and we will have to do it here.

CURWOOD: So, cash for clunkers you're saying, huh?

THORNTON: Cash for clunkers is an important part of it.

CURWOOD: So, now you have the EU looking at this as well as Britain's highest court. What's about Brexit? What happens when the UK leaves the European Union? What will happen to the air quality regulations and enforcement?

James Thornton currently resides in England, is the founding CEO of ClientEarth, and focuses on biodiversity loss, climate change, and toxic chemicals. In the United States, Mr. Thornton founded the Citizen’s Enforcement Project at NRDC in New York as well as the Los Angeles Office of NRDC. (Photo: ClientEarth)

THORNTON: Well, Brexit keeps everybody who is interested in environmental performance in the UK up at night. You know, what we're told by the prime minister is that all of the laws now that were generated by our participation with the EU will be brought over into UK law so that the day after Brexit all of those laws will still apply. And you have to do that, of course, or you would suddenly have no law on the books. If you do it right, then we'll still be able to enforce these laws.

Parliament over time would be able to change them, and the UK government, unless it changes its heart, will certainly try to weaken the air quality laws, and there's a big movement now to say, “After Brexit we need a new Clean Air Act that's stronger rather than weaker.” But after we won our first case in the Supreme Court, the UK government actually went Brussels to try and increase the pollution limits, so it could say was meeting them without doing anything. So, the level of governmental inaction and bad faith is depressing when the result is that citizens are suffering.

CURWOOD: So, what's holding them back? When you're kept up late at night, what do you think motivates these people to be so obstructionist at this point?

THORNTON: I think it's stupidity, largely. You know, it's an old form of thinking in which we, the government, get to do what we want, and you can't disturb us. It's a kind of antidemocratic thinking, and, you know, with society in transition we've seen the right-wing government get in in Poland. We've seen Brexit in the UK. We've seen the election results in the United States.

There's been a lot of talk about “the people.” For example, Mr. Trump has been talking about the “enemies of the people”, including the press. Here, when the judges decided to trigger Brexit, parliament had to have a vote. The right-wing newspapers described the judges as “enemies of the people,” and Brexit was said to be “the will of the people.” To me, if you actually wanted to do something for the people, you would clean up their air, you would clean up their water.

CURWOOD: James Thornton is the CEO of Client Earth, a public interest environmental law organization based in London. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

THORNTON: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.



The Independent: “London's air pollution worse than Beijing's as smog chokes UK capital”

NYTimes: “A Push for Diesel Leaves London Gasping Amid Record Pollution”

An MIT-led study found Volkswagen’s excess emissions will lead to 1,200 premature deaths in Europe

The Telegraph: The statistics about diesel are crystal clear. It’s deadly”

BBC: “Law needed to limit Brexit's environmental impact, say MPs”

Financial Times: “Special achievement award: James Thornton, ClientEarth law firm”

About James Thornton


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