Air pollution: Electric cars are not the answer, says top UK adviser

Electric car

Cars must be driven out of cities to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis, not just replaced with electric vehicles, according to the UK government’s top adviser.

According to The Guardian of UK, Professor Frank Kelly said that while electric vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, they still produce large amounts of tiny pollution particles from brake and tyre dust, for which the government already accepts there is no safe limit.

Toxic air causes 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned from 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that. But faced with rising anger from some motorists, the plan made the use of charges to deter dirty diesel cars from polluted areas a measure of last resort only.

Kelly’s intervention heightens the government’s dilemma between protecting public health and avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists. “The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough,” said Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, official expert advisers to the government. “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.”

Ministers were forced to produce an air pollution plan after being sued twice in the courts over illegal levels, but it was criticised as “woefully inadequate” and “lacking urgency” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by leading doctors. The government’s own research showed the fastest and most cost-effective measure to cut the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution largely caused by diesel engines is to charge dirty cars to enter urban areas.

Electric vehicles emit no NO2 but do produce small particle pollution from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads. A recent European commission research paper found that about half of all particulate matter comes from these sources.

Swapping cars for bikes, not diesel for electric, is the best route to clean air

“While governments don’t currently pay much attention to particulate matter, it is in fact highly polluting, with strong links to cardiopulmonary toxicity,” said Kelly in an article in the Guardian.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 29,000 people die early each year from particle pollution, more than the 23,500 premature deaths attributed to NO2. The combined total is 40,000 because some people are harmed by both pollutants. NO2 levels are illegally high in most urban areas, allowing legal action to be taken, but small particle levels are not.NO2

The legal limit in England and Wales for particulate matter is two and a half times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline set in 2005 and which has already been adopted in Scotland. London’s air is above the WHO limit but below that in England and Wales, said Kelly: “So it’s legal but unhealthy.” In any case, both the UK government and the WHO agree there is no safe level of small particle pollution.

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