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Toxic air in London shows we need a new and radical urban policy

25 Jan , 2017  

By  -  
Amit is the co-editor of Consented

Yesterday it emerged that the air in London had reached “toxic” levels and that the capital’s air pollution had become worse than that in Beijing, coupled with the issuance of health warnings – representing the worst environmental outlook for London in some time.

Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, has described the situation as a “health crisis” which has largely been put down to traffic induced air pollution and excess wood burning during the recent cold spell.

The situation is so bad that some school children have been banned from playing outside because of potential health risks – the capital’s outlook looking more akin to a dystopian sci-fi film than a modern, advanced city.

The environmental outlook for London has been terrible for some time. Around 9,500 Londoners die each year because of long-term exposure to unclean air, whilst 443 schools are situated in areas that are above the safe legal limit for pollution.

People will expect the proverbial smog to clear and things to improve, but this current crisis has been a long time in the making as the British government has historically embraced rampant, unchecked capitalism.

Green policies that we have in place are no more than lip service as the govermnet plans to allow for an expansion of Heathrow. In the context of London’s air pollution crisis this decision is absurd.

Short term, stopping the expansion of Heathrow is an absolute must for improving the situation. So too is the closure of roads within London, given that traffic has been cited as a cause of the current crisis – London breached its air pollution limit for the whole of 2017 within just five days.

The city needs a new and radical urban policy that does not centre capitalism and corporations, but instead focuses on the well-being of the people who inhabit it.

Madrid provides a model for this with the city’s mayor Manuela Carmena announcing that the city would make Gran Via car free within by 2019.

For context Gran Via is an incredibly busy six-lane road that goes right through the centre of Madrid. In a temporary nine-day street closure Carmena was able to debunk the argument that closing major roads is bad for businesses and would deter shoppers (although businesses should be an afterthought with regard to this type of thinking).

It is high-time London began to close some of its major roads. We need a radical rethink of urban policy because London is dangerously polluted and over-crowded by cars.

And we don’t have to look to far for inspiration: Oslo recently moved to ban cars by 2019, a move which is projected to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

Whilst Madrid, Paris, Mexico City and Athens have vowed to completely ban Diesel cars by 2025 in order to improve ever worsening air pollution. London is lagging woefully behind.

There is no danger of London becoming car-free anytime soon. Many praised Sadiq Khan for his manifesto to combat London’s air pollution back in July, but the fact it had no critique of capitalism rendered it completely ineffectual.

Until politicians begin to divest from capitalism we will not see an improvement in our environmental outlook. For air pollution to go down corporate interests would to be secondary to environmental interests.

Khan, like rival Zac Goldsmith, presents himself as being pro-business but also a green politician – this is a contradiction in terms.

Capitalism relies on horrible environmental (and human rights) abuses – it is not possible to be pro-business and be an environmentalist.

Capitalism is an incredibly short term ideology that is dependent on the unsustainable extraction of resources. Until our environmental policy looks to combat this destructive tendency, we will never achieve the substantive changes we require to overcome the current crisis.

For now at least London should look to follow Madrid and Oslo and begin reducing the number of cars in the capital. Longer term though we need to move away from capitalist economics that are so reliant on environmental abuses or our efforts will continue to be futile.


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