Air Quality Remains Poor – But the Blame has Shifted to the Car Manufacturers

Maybe, maybe the owners of VW, Audi, Seat and other cars will put enough political pressure on their governments that this will be sustained because of self-interest in the resale value of their cars rather than the condition of their lungs. Either way, this may just have been the best thing for air quality.

Air quality in cities has been increasingly poor for years. Sustainable cities need great air quality. As regulation tightened on industrial emissions from factories, construction and combustion the predominant source of particulate matter, sulphur, NOx and ozone shifted to combustion engines in vehicles.

Earlier this year I blogged ‘At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution’. The blame, at that time, was squarely on the British Government for failing to deliver on the legislation originating from Brussels.

Two years ago I suggested (in light of the Government’s electric car strategy) ‘There is good news in it – especially the announcement of £500m to be made available over the next parliament to support electric cars. However, there are clear problems with this strategy so Labour has an opportunity to set out its own, more radical, agenda. With the Labour Group in conference in Brighton – heartland of the Green Party, I wonder whether Corbyn will be willing to make some bold commitments – not least because last week we saw the blame shift from the Government to the manufacturers. It’s akin to blaming the bankers for providing the cash to everyone who wanted to borrow. If you want to buy a car, buy one – you’d think you were safe in the knowledge there are people monitoring the performance of cars in the same way there are watchdogs guarding the banks.

Today, in conference, Labour committed to getting the taxes owed by Starbucks, Google and others. Maybe tomorrow they’ll commit to ensuring multi-national car manufacturers will be brought to book for not just failing, downright deceptively avoiding, standards.

Government will be quick to confuse the issues of legislation, choice and deception. Government will suggest the cause of the issue is entirely down to the poor performance of new vehicles coming on to the market, a la VW. There isn’t many places the car manufacturers can go other than to fall on their catalytic convertors but the hiding place for national and local government wont be long lived.

If government’s don’t tighten up their regulation of the automakers and air quality there is only one loser – us. If government’s do respond we can see better vehicle technology deployed, an accelerated shift towards electric, gas and hydrogen engines and, as a result, cleaner air.

Maybe, maybe the owners of VW, Audi, Seat and other cars will put enough political pressure on their governments that this will be sustained because of self-interest in the resale value of their cars rather than the condition of their lungs. Either way, this may just have been the best thing for air quality.

Read also: http://www.citiesofthefuture.eu/volkswagen-cheating-an-opportunity-for-cities/

We need a new name for cities

In the past week I have travelled through the cities of Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and the lesser known Ningbo, in China. On my travels I flew over cities I didn’t know that we’re bigger than any I had seen in the UK or Europe. These cities extend for tens of miles east-west and north-south filling bays, rivers, deltas, hillsides, islands and deserts. They are home to tens of millions of people and they stretch high into the sky with buildings touching and penetrating the clouds that hang above them. They are places where engineering and science have allowed human populations to tolerate otherwise difficult, or even inhospitable, environments. They have been built where, ordinarily it would be considered uncomfortably or dangerously hot and humid. They have been built on flood plains where rivers swell in monsoon rains or on hillsides where those waters rush through from mountainous uplands. They are served by a network of roads, railways, canals and rivers that enable otherwise isolated parts of their country to be connected. Their airports are the size of large towns and have asset values that outstrip the cities of Western Europe. They sprawl, yes, but they also have very high population density, sacrificing personal living space for the desire to be urbanised and supported by the infrastructure those cities bring. To a European or North American they would, I guess, feel claustrophobic. 

They are, simply, mega. Mega cities that dwarf what we, in the UK at least, have come to refer to as cities. In comparison, whilst London might hold its own (just), the cities of the UK are smaller, less relevant to the global economy and its networks. Collectively, if you bundled all the top 10 cities in the UK together, it might get to approximately half the size of Shanghai. 

When cities have grown up, literally, building taller and taller towers in a show of architectural bravado, they are also growing underground. You can’t help but be impressed by Hong Kong’s subway system. Not only does it connect communities across Hong Kong’s islands it connects communities through the labyrinth of supporting infrastructure like tunnels, escalators and lifts – and they air condition it too so making it more comfortable than surface level transport. All of these things support denser urban form. So, there are 3 levels in Hong Kong – underground, surface and Sky. 

 
The view from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hong Kong at the Ozone Bar, the highest and in earth.

  The extensive subway network connects Hong Kong’s Islands and communities beneath the surface.

Hong Kong has been a significant city for some time. It now boasts some of the greatest wealth, best universities and global business trades there daily. But the cities forming across China are doing it at such a pace it’s hard to map it. Huge swathes of their countries are mined, quarried and felled to support the quest for growth. As described in a previous blog and talk from TedTalks here the buildings are going up faster than the governance and infra infrastructure can keep up with. One without the other is destabilising and can lead to systems failure, unrest and inequity. Even in more established cities the growth is financed by the labours of the many for the benefit of the few. 

If these are mega cities where does that leave cities of the UK? Individually they are no bigger, on a global scale, than a village is to a city like London. Collectively they might just be significant. For that to happen in the UK will mean all the Core Cities, plus London, Belfast, Southampton, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt to collaborate. To support this will require transport links between cities, over water, through mountains and in the air. And to do it without ripping up the natural capital we need to support our cities. The British Government doesn’t get this at all. It still sees itself as aglobal player when in reality it isn’t. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a response to inward looking economic agendas instead of sing the opportunity for the UK to compete as a whole in the mega city economy. Extracting the UK from Europe would only hasten that inward looking agenda.

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