The campaigner who caused a stink over London pollution

It took just the first two days of 2015 for Oxford Street to pass its annual limit on levels of NO2

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The millions of tourists who flock to London every year expect to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and double-decker buses. But the EU’s largest city is also home to something far less appealing: alarming levels of air pollution.

The capital’s unhealthy air has been causing up to premature 9,400 deaths a year — far more than previously thought, a study by researchers at King’s College London (KCL) concluded last year.

Another report, for think-tank Policy Exchange, showed that nearly 4m people work in parts of London with illegal levels of a principal culprit — nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas released by the large number of diesel vehicles. Some 328,000 children go to schools in areas with unhealthy amounts of the pollutant, which can inflame airways in the lungs, causing wheezing, colds and worse.

NO2 pollution was so bad in busy Putney High Street, south-west London, that it exceeded annual legal levels in the first eight days of this year, according to the KCL research, and it took just two days to pass the annual limit in crowded Oxford Street in 2015.

“It’s a scandal,” says Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, an environmental law firm that has been fighting in the courts for faster government action on smog for the past five years.

The problem became a prominent subject of debate in the run-up to the mayoral elections in May. New mayor Sadiq Khan plans to impose a £10 charge on the dirtiest vehicles from 2017 and bring forward other anti-pollution measures launched by his predecessor, Boris Johnson.

For some of the scientists who have been monitoring the city’s air for years, this is welcome news. “Our previous mayor didn’t really believe in doing anything to restrict business or individual freedoms,” says Professor Frank Kelly, director of the Environmental Research Group at KCL. “The current mayor recognises there is a penalty to pay.”

That recognition took years and is in part due to the efforts of one especially dogged, if unlikely, campaigner: Simon Birkett, an engineer turned investment banker.

A decade ago, many environmental activists were preoccupied more with global issues, including climate change, than local ones such as smog. The phrase “air pollution in London” cropped up eight times in news stories in 2006, a media database search shows. (The figure last year was 60.) But 2006 was the year Birkett began to get involved. He was nearing the end of a 21-year career with HSBC when a friend conscripted him to a Knightsbridge residents’ association in west London that had been fighting to stop motorists using residential streets as rat runs. Birkett discovered there was an air quality monitor on Brompton Road, not far from Harrods department store. “The pollution levels were much higher than they should have been,” he says.

Campaigner Simon Birkett

This realisation set off a one-man campaign to nag, niggle and pester officials throughout the city about the need for legal levels. Birkett founded a campaign group, Clean Air in London, but by 2009 decided to crank up the legal pressure, making what he says was a “significant” donation to ClientEarth. “His early investment in ClientEarth allowed us to initiate and develop a successful campaign,” says Andrews.

Midway through 2009, Andrews realised a deadline for meeting EU NO2 limits was going to be broken by a significant margin in London the following year. A lengthy court battle ensued and as the case dragged on, it emerged that under existing government plans, London’s air would not meet legal levels until 2030.

In April last year, ClientEarth scored a victory. The Supreme Court ordered the government to redraft its NO2 plans by December 31 to meet legal limits as soon as possible. Four months later, the world learnt that Volkswagen had been installing software in its diesel cars that enabled cheating in official emissions tests, focusing fresh attention on air pollution.

By the end of last year, the government had come up with a new set of plans, though analysts say it will still take years before London’s air is legal. So ClientEarth is back in court, trying to force faster action.

Birkett is now 57 and thinks his work in raising awareness about London’s air pollution is close to being done. “I’ve made myself redundant — deliberately,” he says, pointing to the widespread recognition of the problem and the large number of campaigners now working on it. “There’s a tidal wave rolling up the beach.”

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