Wednesday, March 30, 2011

London's Race for Clean Olympic Air

The Gaurdian: With construction on the stadium complete and plans for a blue hockey pitch unveiled, preparations to date for the 2012 Olympics appear to be running smoothly, but in the background is an issue that plagued the Beijing Games.

Poor air quality is one of the biggest public health problems facing the capital: it has the worst air quality record in Britain and ranks among the worst in Europe. Simon Birkett, founder of the Clean Air in London campaign, took early retirement two years ago to mobilise public opinion and put pressure on the London mayor and the government to clean up the air ahead of the Games.

The run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics was mired by negative reports about smog smothering the city. The International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, was prompted to admit a year before the Games that China's pollution problems were so dire that outdoor endurance events could be postponed if the problem continued to worsen.

The Beijing organisers took drastic measures three weeks before the Games to lift the haze of smog: banning half the city's 3.3m cars from the roads each day, depending on whether their number plates ended in an odd or even digit. That proved insufficient so efforts were stepped up.

Although London is not on a par with the smog of Beijing, there is a pressing need to improve London's air. A report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee concluded last year that poor air quality made asthma worse, exacerbated heart disease and respiratory illness, and "probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic accidents or obesity".

Figures published last year by city hall revealed 4,300 premature deaths were caused by poor air quality in London in 2008. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who has done so much championing of the Games, is under pressure because of his statutory duty to deliver an air quality strategy for the capital.

Thanks to London, the UK is in breach of an air quality standard set in 2005. A second written warning from the European Commission, issued last year, concentrated minds and the UK won an extension to meet the standard for limit values for PM10s – dangerous airborne particles that contribute to thousands of premature deaths.

This month the commission granted the UK an extension because the commission's environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, believed government had successfully demonstrated that the UK would reach compliance.

But because this was projected to be met within a "very narrow margin", the extension was agreed on condition that the London air quality plan is revised by June and submitted to the commission for scrutiny by November this year.

Johnson maintains that the measures in his air quality strategy were not all included in the official submission to Europe, and that once these are presented as the action plan the commission will be satisfied and London will not reach the stage where cars have to be ordered off the road in pollution hotspots.

Let's hope this race is won so that athletes and spectators breathe in cleaner air next year at what the government promised would be the greenest ever Games.

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