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What’s the Tories’ plan to clean up air pollution? Hold your breath until 2050

One of the things I love most about living in London is quite how big everything is. And not just cool things like art galleries and skyscrapers and the public transport network, either, but all sorts of things – like rents and salaries (not yours or mine) and the queue to get into brunch. They’re all so much bigger than in any other British city. It’s brilliant. No, honestly, it’s completely brilliant.

Anyway, one of the things which it’s recently turned out was also bigger in London is its air pollution. EU law states that the average hourly level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), spluttered out mainly from diesel vehicles, should not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times a year.

But this country is not letting any Brussels bureaucrat dictate to us about what we can and can’t breathe, and Brixton Road, one of the main highways into south London, had already managed to exceed that limit by 5 January. Take that, Junker. Brexit means Brexit. You lost, get over it.

This isn’t actually a new phenomenon: last year, Putney High Street managed to breach the hourly limit over 1,100 times, which is a bit more than 18. In all, since the decade’s start, the legal limit has been breached in more than 90% of the UK’s urban areas.

Nor is this just a theoretical problem: in 2010, when air pollution was rather lighter than it is today, researchers at King’s College London calculated that long term exposure to NO2 was linked to 5,900 deaths in London. In all, according to the Royal College of Physicians, air pollution across the UK is responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths each year. It’s difficult to come up with any other phenomenon or policy or organisation that could get away with knocking off a population the size of Dover every year without the government being forced to intervene.

As it happens, ministers are taking action – but they’re not taking very much action, and they’re also taking their sweet time about what they are bothering to do. (In their defence, the ministry responsible, Defra, puts the number of deaths attributable to air pollution every year at just 23,500, and killing a population the size of Ormskirk is fine.)

The original plan to sort out this mess would have seen parts of the UK not meeting EU standards until 2030, but in 2015, the supreme court ruled that the government had to take immediate steps. This, it turns out, meant “another two years and one court battle later”, which I think gives us a sense of how serious ministers are about dealing with this problem.

Finally today, the government published its air quality strategy consultation – not a plan, so much as a plan to have a plan. To be fair, this includes a number of positive proposals for getting air pollution down: cutting speeds on certain motorways; introducing a scheme to “retrofit” the most polluting vehicles; an expansion of the UK’s “clean air zones” in which local authorities will take specific actions to get emissions down.

But the strategy is noteworthy, too, for what it leaves out. It doesn’t commit the government to a scheme to scrap the dirtiest diesel cars. And it does everything it can to discourage councils from charging polluting vehicles entering clean-air zones. For a party that believes in the economics of financial incentives, it’s funny how reluctant the Conservatives are to impose any new charges on drivers.

The problem, I fear, is that deaths from air pollution are largely invisible: they manifest as other, more noticeable symptoms such as cancer, stroke and heart disease. The protests of the car industry and the motoring lobby, by contrast, are very visible indeed. As it stands, it’s easier to lose votes by penalising drivers than it is to win them by cleaning up the air.

So it is that the government’s ambition is for “nearly every car and van to be zero emission” by the distant date of 2050. Until then, you’ll just have to hold your breath. And whatever you do, avoid Brixton Road.