In December 1952, London suffered its worst fog in centuries. That doesn't sound too bad - after all, hang around long enough and fog just goes away of its own accord. This one didn't. Freakishly calm weather conditions meant that the fog stayed, and stayed, and stayed. And it killed. It wasn't just fog, but a toxic soup of fog, chock full of sulphur dioxide from coal being burned both in home fires and in vast city-centre power stations, such as Battersea. At the time, it was thought that 4,000 people died from respiratory illness brought on by breathing in the sickly vapours. Now, it is estimated that the real death toll could have been as high as 12,000. No wonder London takes air pollution so seriously.
And never more so than now. Last month, the London T-Charge (for 'Toxicity Charge') came into effect. It's an extra £10 charge (about €11.33 today) on top of the existing £11.50 (about €13) congestion charge, and it's levied only on cars using engines conforming to Euro 4 emissions regulations, or older. That means, essentially, cars up to around 2005 to 2008 - and older. The plan is that the charge will discourage the users of such cars from entering the city centre, in an effort to reduce the levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM, soot from diesel engines essentially) in the city.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that "as Mayor I am determined to take urgent action to help clean up London's lethal air. The shameful scale of the public health crisis London faces, with thousands of premature deaths caused by air pollution, must be addressed. Today marks a major milestone in this journey with the introduction of the T-Charge to encourage motorists to ditch polluting, harmful vehicles. London now has the world's toughest emission standard with older more polluting vehicles paying up to £21.50 a day to drive in the centre of the city. The T-charge is a stepping stone to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, which could be introduced as early as 2019. This is the time to stand up and join the battle to clear the toxic air we are forced to breathe. I am transforming our bus fleet, getting rid of the oldest polluting taxis and creating healthier streets that will leave a lasting legacy for our children. But I can't do this alone. I urgently need government to step up and face their responsibilities by delivering a diesel scrappage fund and a Cleaner Air Act that is fit for purpose. I also need Londoners to work with me so we can phase out the use of the dirtiest polluting vehicles from our roads."
Is this a good idea? Well, on the face of it, yes. Taking the position of 'the polluter pays' has been shown to be effective in many other areas of environmental improvement, and there's no question that London has some serious air quality issues. However, even the Mayor's Office own estimate is that there are only around 34,000 cars every month that may qualify to pay the charge. That's only slightly more than 1,000 cars per day and, in a city the size of London, you'd have to say that such numbers may not make an exactly huge difference. The charge doesn't affect heavy vehicles (not until 2020 at the earliest) and these are rather worse for emissions and air quality than most Euro4 cars.
There is, of course, a sense of this just being the beginning. Since the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke two years ago, the world has been on the warpath against diesel engines, and by introducing the scheme now, Transport for London and the Mayor's Office are laying the groundwork for more extensive diesel and eventually all combustion engine bans to bring London into line with the likes of Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and others.
It will disproportionally affect those on lower incomes, of course (inevitable if you're targeting the use of older cars), which is a concern, but in general promoting the use of newer, cleaner vehicles is a good thing, isn't it? After all, this is not a carbon dioxide (CO2) thing, so arguably it doesn't matter if you're encouraging the construction and purchase of newer cars, it just matters how clean their exhausts are.
How clean that is depends on the car, the engines and how much you're prepared to accept the results of laboratory tests of those cars and engines. Senior engineers repeatedly tell us that their latest-generation diesels are at least as clean, in some cases cleaner, than the best petrol engines. But then we have all seen just how woefully inadequate those laboratory tests can be...
Could something similar be introduced here? It's possible, but unlikely for the immediate moment. The recent Budget showed that the Government is prepared to take a hands-off approach for now where diesel cars are concerned, worried that there could be an electoral backlash if extra taxes are loaded onto the very same cars we were encouraged to buy from 2008 onwards. Besides, the sales figures show that the bad publicity for diesel power is probably doing at least as much as blunt tax policy could achieve, as diesel sales are falling, and hybrids and plugins are gaining some (albeit small) sales traction.
It's also true that Dublin doesn't suffer from the same pollution issues as London. Dublin is flatter and more exposed to coastal breezes and winds, so the air doesn't tend to gather and coalesce the way it would in London, and obviously with a tenth of London's population, we're less likely to create a storm of pollution. But don't discount the possibility. The Department of Environment has a consultation paper on air quality out at the moment, and a spokesperson told CompleteCar.ie that "the purpose of the strategy is to advance a coherent cross government framework for decision making on policies and actions that can impact air quality and pollution from all sources, including transport. The setting of fuel tax rates is ultimately, however, a matter for the Minister for Finance, informed by the recommendations of the Taxation Strategy Group."
So, we don't get the same pea-soup fogs that London gets. We don't have that massive, concentrated population. We don't have the same pollution issues. But extra taxes and charges for bringing your car into the city centres of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and elsewhere? Yeah, that's probably inevitable.