A silent killer?

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The Green Party Conference didn’t receive much attention this year. Nevertheless, one significant announcement was unveiled with the idea of emission-free zones once again raised. This policy is aimed at the UK’s five worst polluted cities, of which Bristol is one, and is intended to convince local councils to take action before 2023 in the creation of “breathing cities”.

This is deemed necessary in Bristol as there are around 300 people dying per year as a direct consequence of this silent killer. In addition, around 100,000 people reside in areas of this city where the nitrogen dioxide (N02) levels breach the UK and European legal standards.

Traffic at a standstill

These zero-emission zones would ban all but electric vehicles. This would dramatically improve air quality in Bristol, with diesel cars responsible for 40% of the NO2 emissions and car emissions, in general, the major culprit.

There are concerns, however, that these plans could fundamentally change Bristol’s city centre, could damage business, and could cause people huge inconvenience if the public transport system failed to pick up the slack. Despite these worries, there has been some progress in cleaning up Bristol’s air. This summer, four potential clean air zones were identified through which cars would be charged for entering. This proposal received £498,000 of government funding for the local council to assess feasibility.

The time has certainly come. Bristol has been an air quality management area since 2001, and is one of only three areas in the country, alongside Plymouth and Teeside, where air quality has actually worsened.

Other benefits of a traffic-free city centre would include more space for shoppers or tourists, as well as giving cyclists extra room on the road. Considering that, in 2015, traffic deaths in the UK reached a staggering 1,732, the latter in particular would benefit from a much safer journey, whilst the roads would become a more attractive place.

On a national level, this crisis is receiving more attention as well, with the environmental pressure group ClientEarth writing a legal letter to the environment secretary demanding action. The Independent newspaper has also recently reported that within two recent court battles the government lost a total £365,000 in challenging legal claims made by ClientEarth. The Green Party’s leader Caroline Lucas has argued it is “astonishing” that the government is using money to fight legal battles, rather than concentrating on solving the problem of polluted air in the UK.

It is, therefore, clear that this ongoing issue, labelled by MPs last year as a “public health emergency” is unlikely to disappear. As groups such as ClientEarth get louder and councils continue to miss targets, is it perhaps time for Bristol at least to take action?