London Lacking in Clean Air? Blame Europe

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Paul Hackett / Reuters

Buildings in the financial district are obscured in a haze, as seen from Crystal Palace in south London June 26, 2010.

Call it the Air Wars. For the past 18 months, the city of London has failed to meet air-quality limits set by the European Commission (EC). Earlier this month, Brussels granted the U.K. capital a temporary extension to bring levels of a certain type of dangerous pollutant called PM10 to within a safe standard. But facing a $480 million fine should the city fail to comply, London's mayor has launched a novel challenge to the EC, saying that London's pollution is actually the result of bad air drifting over from other European countries.

In 2008, the EC adopted a directive that set ambient air-quality limits for a variety of pollutants, including PM10 — that is, particles above 10 micrometers in diameter. Such particles, which are emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating, cause 4,300 premature deaths in London each year, mostly in elderly and asthmatic citizens, according to a report last year by the mayor's office. Under the EC directive, cities are allowed to exceed the limit for PM10 up to 35 times each year; London has consistently surpassed that number.

On March 11, the British government — which will be held accountable if London fails to meet the targets — was granted a three-month extension before the EC holds infringement proceedings, which could carry a hefty fine. Privately, however, city officials say they will struggle to make the new deadline. Last week, London mayor Boris Johnson said tests at various pollution hotspots around the city had revealed that 80% of instances in which London exceeded the PM10 limit was the result of pollution drifting over the channel from the Continent.

Isabel Dedring, the mayor's Advisor for Environment, says that independent researchers from Kings College London have determined that pollution from road transport and agriculture fertilizers from Western Europe, as well as power stations in central and eastern Europe, had led to spikes in PM10 in London. She says that eleven European countries are in violation of the European National Emissions Ceiling Directive — which limits air pollution on a country-wide basis — and that this was contributing to London's air-quality problems. "It is of course right to hold London to account to protect the health of Londoners," says Dedring. "At the same time, when you have waves of pollution coming in from other countries ... there's nothing London can do about that directly." She adds that the U.K. will appeal to the EC, and may even consider a legal challenge.

Europe has some of the most stringent air-pollution limits in the world. European cities must not exceed a daily concentration value for PM10 of 50 micrograms per cubic meter; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by comparison, sets the limit at 150 micrograms per cubic meter.

When contacted by TIME, the European Commission seemed unimpressed that London is blaming its air pollution problem on bad air from Europe. Joe Hennon, European Commission Spokesman for the Environment, grants that "air pollution knows no borders and it may well be that air pollution from continental Europe is transported to the U.K. during particular meteorological episodes." But he says those episodes are rare, as the dominant southwesterly winds in the U.K. usually move the air pollution in the opposite direction — toward Europe.

Hennon adds that, in those instances of "inverse wind circulation" when European air pollution spreads to the U.K., the long distance traveled means that the pollution levels are "very much diluted in comparison to the regionally and locally emitted air pollutants." Most of the time particles are transported from Europe during rainy, "cyclonic" weather systems "that efficiently scavenge air pollution," he says. And, when the weather is not rainy, particles usually stay lofted in the air and do not reach street level.

Simon Birkett, the director of the pressure group Clean Air in London, says that even if it were true that European pollution has reached London's streets, the EC directive allows for such transboundary air pollution by granting 35 air-quality infringements a year. "It is laughable for the Mayor to suggest others are to blame for London's air pollution problems," Birkett writes in an email to TIME. "We need Mayor Johnson and the government to tackle an invisible public-health crisis with as many early deaths attributable to air pollution in London in 2008 as we thought occurred during the Great Smog of 1952," when cold, windless conditions led to a blanket of smog enveloping London, leading to an estimated 4,000 premature deaths.

Birkett blames London's high pollution on Johnson's decision to delay by 15 months the tightening of London's Low Emission Zone, which fines the most polluting vans and trucks, and also his decision to abandon plans by his predecessor to extend the "congestion charge" zone in London, which charges drivers who enter central London. But Dedring, the mayor's environment adviser, insists that the city has undertaken various measures to combat pollution, including the introduction of dust suppressant spray, a sticky solution applied several times a week to roads that keeps particulate matter on the ground and prevents it from re-circulating in the air. "We are taking a very innovative approach to this problem, but to a certain extend we are stymied," she says.