Emissions research “has found nitrogen dioxide concentrations on Oxford Street to be worse than they are anywhere else on Earth”, Williams says. Anyone who has visited Beijing, Mexico City or Delhi really knows what bad air pollution looks and feels like. Pollution levels in London are in fact lower than in many other world cities: average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from monitoring sites near busy roads in Stuttgart, Paris, Munich, Rome and Milan are all higher than those recorded for London.
Even though it was estimated in 2010 that there were 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, says Williams, “pollution still isn’t taken seriously as a health issue”. At City Hall we are the first to admit that London’s air quality is not good enough. Buses and taxis are major contributors to air pollution on busy roads, so we’ve retired 900 of the oldest buses, and are putting 1,700 ultra-low emission hybrid buses on our streets. Removing 3,000 of the oldest, most polluting taxis met initial opposition but we have pushed on: from 2018 all new taxis will be capable of zero emissions.
We’ve also been busy making 400,000 homes and public buildings energy-efficient and have established a £20m fund to tackle air quality hotspots.
We’ve reduced emissions of NOx by 20% and particulates by 15% since the mayor was elected, and we have halved the number of Londoners living in areas that break EU limits for NO2. The mayor is now drawing up plans for an ultra-low emission zone from 2020, which no other city has ever proposed. This is expected to more than halve emissions of NOx and dangerous particles.