But it’s becoming clear that the capital and other British towns and cities (including Birmingham, Oxford and Manchester) still have a serious air pollution problem. And it’s not something that we can smell so very easily.
A survey carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council concluded that around 13,000 premature deaths in the UK are caused by ‘combustion emissions’ annually. Of that, around 5000 heart attacks and lung diseases are attributable to vehicle emissions.
It looks like things are taking a turn for the worse in the capital, with Oxford Street in the centre of London having some of the highest concentrations of Nitrogen Oxide in the world.
Not surprisingly, attention has turned to the UK’s diesel-powered vehicles. Diesel engines are responsible for the overwhelming amount of particulates and nitrogen oxide pollution. Very fine particles are now thought to be small enough to pass into the human blood stream via the lungs.
All the UK’s cities have a big problem, it’s just that London’s air quality is much more closely monitored.
There have been two huge policy errors that got us into a serious situation that look like it might get worse. Firstly, the completely debasing of the meaning of ‘pollution’, by classing CO2 as a gas immediately harmful to human health.
European lobbyists completely ignored the pioneering California Clean Air laws, which progressively outlawed dangerous gases, which simultaneously prevented the sales of diesel-powered passengers cars.
Indeed, the Union of Concerned Scientists had long campaigned against the use of diesel in the US. They also ignored the presumption against diesel as a fuel in places like Japan.
But the situation looks even worse. The World Health Authority has recently massively lowered what it regards as the ‘safe’ exposure to particulates. And there’s increasing evidence that as diesel engines age they becoming far more polluting.
Which is where the Frazer-Nash comes in. It’s the first dedicated London vehicle that is reversing the idea that having low CO2 emissions is all that matters and recognizing that all cities need to start reversing up on their reliance on diesel.
There are significant upsides to driving a petrol hybrid in heavy traffic, as I found when piloting the Frazer-Nash. The silence of the electric motors, the ease of the single-ratio transmission made driving around the centre of the capital as relaxing as I imagine as it could ever be. And the huge reduction in drive-by noise will make city and town living more civilized.
But this is just one tiny step. With tens of millions of diesel vehicles on the roads, this issue of pollution could – should – finally topple CO2 from the top of the environmental agenda.