May 28th, 2014
London has a dirty secret.
Levels of the harmful air pollutant nitrogen dioxide at a city-center monitoring station are the highest in Europe. Concentrations are greater even than in Beijing, where expatriates have dubbed the city’s smog the “airpocalypse.”
It’s the law of unintended consequences at work. European Union efforts to fight climate change favored diesel fuel over gasoline because it emits less carbon dioxide, or CO2. However, diesel’s contaminants have swamped benefits from measures that include a toll drivers pay to enter central London, a thriving bike-hire program and growing public-transport network.
“Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.”