This week air pollution has moved, literally, into the public eye, in London, following similar smog alerts in Paris during March, which had even led to a one day odd/even car ban.
London air was aggravated by high dust levels from the Sahara. I was pretty doubtful about that when I heard it on the weather forecast, but sure enough, there was an unexpected boost to the car wash industry the next day. But air pollution is still a huge problem: last week the World Health Organisation said that air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths each year. How many dead from fracking? Or, for that matter, will there be 250 million deaths from climate change by 2050? The answer to that, according another UN agency is nowhere near it.
Let’s recall the importance of air pollution in the history of the green narrative - and most importantly how today’s greens are desperate not to even mention the solution.
The big smog of winter 1952/53 in London provided the first impetus to ban coal powered stations in London. Apart from allowing the development years later of the Tate Modern, it also provided a template for other countries to clean up the worst power stations and gave an early push to nuclear power in the UK. Natural gas was still considered too rare to burn to produce electricity until the 1990’s.
In California, smog from cars started to reach a tipping point in the late 1960’s in Los Angeles. The modern US environmental movement started from a combination of Malthusian alarmism over population growth from people like Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb. Peak Oil philosophy started from a Peak People credo as described in the excellent recent book The Bet, but was accelerated by the bad air of LA. This led to unleaded petrol and catalytic converters which have led to huge drops in air pollution. We see the trend now moving to China and the air pollution narrative is a strong one that unavoidably provides demands for action.
In the UK green narrative, action has long been replaced by words. Last year I described my disgust at London air pollution conference overflowing with problem huggers. That was simply a gabfest following on from a London Assembly report on how deadly air pollution is:
The paper, Air Pollution in London, produced by the Assembly's Health and Environment Committee, reports 8.3% of deaths in Westminster are attributable to man-made airborne particles.
This is what the WHO says about air pollution:
Industries, households, cars and trucks emit complex mixtures of air pollutants, many of which are harmful to health. Of all of these pollutants, fine particulate matter has the greatest effect on human health. Most fine particulate matter comes from fuel combustion, both from mobile sources such as vehicles and from stationary sources such as power plants, industry, households or biomass burning.
Fine particulate matter is associated with a broad spectrum of acute and chronic illness, such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiovascular diseases. Worldwide, it is estimated to cause about 16% of lung cancer deaths, 11% of COPD deaths, and more than 20% of ischaemic heart disease and stroke.
London’s air borne particles come not only from coal generation pollution still present from hundreds of miles away, but primarily from diesel fuelled pollution. Europe uses much more diesel than the US for complex reasons, and diesel has a much higher penetration in passenger cars in Europe than the US.
Thanks to congestion charging, the worlds first metro, and London being the largest city on earth without urban motorways, the problem in London is not passenger cars. The problem in London is pollution from buses, diesel taxis and fleet vehicles. I described the problem last January last year:
At no time was it pointed out that there are over 12,000 CNG buses in Europe, or that every bus in LA is gas powered. Or how taxis have to be gas powered by law in places like Bangkok, Dhaka or Teheran.
And certainly don’t mention that there are three, yes 3, CNG buses in the entire UK, the first Olympic city in 30 years that ran on diesel buses.
This year is marginally better. We’ve at least broken the double digit barrier and one great solution is just forty miles away in Reading:
These state-of-the-art buses are powered by compressed natural gas, a much cleaner fuel that produces no particulates (no soot, in other words), no hydrocarbons, virtually zero carbon and drastically reduces the amount of nitrogen oxide (55% less) put into the air. That’s got to be good for the air in Reading.
In the Reading case, they are zero carbon thanks to bio-methane being injected into the system elsewhere to replace the gas taken out in Reading. There’s conflicting data about the CO2 reductions from using natural gas instead of oil, but it’s pretty clear that the particulate matter is solved entirely by CNG. For the confused, LNG transportation for trucks and trains as used in the US and China is suitable where there isn’t a gas grid. Compressed Natural Gas is the perfect solution for countries with a gas grid like the UK. Filling stations can be built to take gas out of what is often a passing gas main, with comparatively little expense. The other great benefit of gas buses by the way is that they are noticeably quieter.
CNG can not only power buses, it can replace diesel, or even just plain gasoline/petrol in taxis. In the last year I’ve been in CNG taxis in New York, Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Istanbul.This isn’t exotic technology. That’s CCS or large scale solar or the Severn Barrage. Fleets of delivery vehicles are another obvious application. Other standbys of the urban street scene such as garbage trucks and emergency vehicles all lend themselves to gas.
Looking at the truck, it’s obvious that there isn’t going to be a solar powered electricity truck this size anytime soon. The reality is that an electric 40 ton truck would need it’s weight in batteries to move. Small scale electric delivery fleets and taxis sound a plausible enough, if expensive, solution and one of these decades maybe there will be hydrogen vehicles. Simply put, the carbon free all green solution to heavy transport doesn’t exist. But in the UK, thinking gas as green is impossible to Friends of the Earth or the Green Party thanks to their doctrinaire all fossil fuels are inherently evil and unburnable stance.
As the London assembly member Jenny Jones, Friends of the Earth and others point out, Europe's most polluted major city has no emergency plans to deal with air pollution and no powers even to restrict traffic during periods of smog.
The problem seems to be that regarding smog is that we don’t spend enough time talking and writing plans about it. Jenny Jones is from the Green Party. The Friends of the Earth couldn’t possibly say anything positive about natural gas. So they don’t tell John Vidal of the Guardian anything either. No one else can get to John Vidal because, like most UK journalists, he doesn’t reply to any emails.
This isn’t a case where the Green Party or Friends of the Earth would die before mentioning natural gas in a positive light. They are perfectly happy to let you die first.