Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Balancing economy while tackling city pollution

No major city in the world is free of pollution of some kind. Even cities like Amsterdam which are reliant on trams, buses and bicycles have the feint smells of exhaust fumes wafting through the air. However some cities are more heavily shrouded in a chemical cloud than others and what my be acceptable in one location is considered unacceptable elsewhere. But tackling pollution can come at a bigger cost to the economy, pricing motorists off the road and taxing businesses into the ground.

Tightening regulations

In many European cities local authorities have tightened regulations over the past few years in an attempt to reduce particle and chemical emissions. In London, for instance, the so-called congestion charge was implemented in order to dissuade motorists from entering the city, thus cutting pollution. While some have argued that the congestion charge is little more than an extra tax on motorists, environmental campaigners maintain the policy has helped reduce pollution levels.

And further restrictions are on their way. In January 2012 many older diesel vehicles will be forced off the road unless their owners fit special filters costing up to £2,500. The Low Emission Zone extends beyond central London to all the surrounding boroughs and is an attempt to reduce pollution further still. While applauded by environmentalists, the new law is seen as overkill especially given London's low pollution levels.

Differing standards

The London Air website publishes hourly readings of pollution levels across the metropolis. The site, run by King's College, uses data picked up fro monitoring stations all over London. Levels rarely exceed what is considered 'Low', the effects of which it says "are unlikely to be noticed even by individuals who know they are sensitive to air pollutants". There have been occasional 'Moderate' readings however. In November this year PM10 particulate levels reached a level considered to have "mild effects" on some individuals but was "unlikely to require action".

Such readings might raise some anxiety in a city where pollution is relatively low. But London's pollution levels are nothing compared to some cities in the world.

Smog or fog?

London has been shrouded in fog in recent days, disrupting flights and making driving difficult. Beijing too has been covered in an opaque blanket of mist in the past few days. But Beijing is not experiencing wintry weather conditions. This is not fog, as some might think looking across the city landscape. This is a smog of chemical pollution which environmentalists in the west would only have nightmares about.

The local government also measures the pollution levels which it publishes daily on its website. Just as in London it uses a PM10 scale. In the past 30 days the Ministry of Environment measured readings ranging between 27, which it rates as 'Excellent', and 147 described as 'Minor Contamination'. However the latter conditions do not tally with reading posted by the US Embassy via its @BeijingAir Twitter feed. Using monitoring equipment installed on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing, there is a marked difference between data published by the  Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center (BMEMC) and @BeijingAir. In the past month the US monitoring system has measured pollution levels way above what ever be acceptable in Europe of the US. Despite using a slightly different system where it measures smaller particles, the discrepancy between official data and the US data is more than a little concerning [CNN].

Hazardous Air

The BMEMC measured recent levels of pollution at 147 and described the air quality as 'Minor Contamination'. However, the USA Embassy saw levels exceeding its cut-off point of 500 and describing the air as 'Hazardous'.

In fact over the past two months the number of Hazardous air days has increased dramatically. And even on days where pollution levels drop to a mere 'Unhealthy', it is more than noticeable. In fact some Foreign doctors suggest that breathing Beijing's air is as damaging to the lungs as smoking one packet of cigarettes every day. An exaggeration perhaps? Maybe, but when you find yourself gagging on some days in the heavy smog that hangs over the city, you wonder if they have a point.

Most industrial countries and the World Health Organization believe PM2.5 is a more accurate standard of measuring air quality than PM10 used by China. Britain also uses the PM10 system while the US employ the PM2.5 scale. And there are also differences in how thew readings are interpreted and scaled. As such it makes it difficult to make exact comparisons.

While it may be easy to compare the readings from the US monitoring station in Beijing to one in the United States, it is not so easy to make a comparison with reading taken in London or elsewhere. In Britain only a simple rating is published ranging from 1 to 10. There is associated PM data, though it is not published along with the posted readings. Nevertheless, even on a superficial level it is clear that pollution levels are much worse in Beijing than those seen in European cities.

But poor air quality is not confined to Beijing. Many other towns and cities across China are often saturated in heavy smog, and other Asian cities are also becoming heavily polluted.

New Delhi on par with Beijing

India's capital, New Delhi, is now considered to be more polluted that even Beijing according to recent reports. A blog published in the New York Times this week says that pollution levels have reached 'Hazardous' levels at times, though locally they are described as 'Very Poor' by India's own Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The cause of the pollution is attributed to vehicles in the most part. But industry and coal burning power stations also contribute significantly to the levels of particulates which hang in the air. China has made attempts to reduce its pollution levels by closing power stations near to the capital and of applying restrictions on vehicles. Local climatic conditions are also a factor.

Green initiatives affect economy

Tackling rising pollution levels is not easy, especially for developing economies. Placing restrictions on transportation, public or private, can impact dramatically on the local economy. As motorists are priced off the road with so-called green taxes placed on fuel pollution levels may well fall. However, businesses can also go bust as deliveries and transportation becomes more expensive, competitiveness decreases and even the customer base dries up.

Even in London where pollution levels are relatively low, restrictions placed on vehicles have had a marked impact on business across the capital. The cost of parking, the creation of 'red routes' where parking is prohibited, the congestion charge and the rising cost of fuel has dissuaded many from entering London to shop.

Low Emission Zone

The onset of the Low Emission Zone is likely to have an effect too as many small business fold. Owners of vans, 4x4s and small lorries may be forced out of business unless they either purchase new vehicles or have expensive filters fitted. The road haulers association has been particularly vocal in their opposition to the LEZ which it says will force the closure of some businesses [roadtransport.com / Daily Mail].

For some there are few choices. Replacing an old vehicle is cost prohibitive. Selling the vehicle would raise very little capital towards the purchase of an LEZ compliant vehicle, and even the fitting of a filter may be too expensive to consider. For firms and individuals with a small turnover the LEZ could be the death knell. With much of Europe and Britain already on the cusp of another recession, businesses are already struggling. Further taxes on the motorist will only make things worse for many families and businesses.

While attempts to cut pollution levels is laudable, it comes at a price to the economy. It is unlikely to get any better as environmentalists push for further restrictions. And with the price of public transport rising too, retail businesses will face an even harder time attracting customers from afar.

Consensus required

Governments and environmental bodies need to strike a balance over what is acceptable. There also needs to be agreement on how pollution is measured and what levels pose a risk. The different systems employed around the world makes the understanding of the true pollution risk difficult to determine. As such a standard needs to be set, such as a PM2.5 for everyone, with agreed definitions as to what levels pose a risk to health. On this basis, just goals and restrictions might be set, as opposed to apparent arbitrary ones.

While no-one is comfortable with the pollution levels in China's capital, if the stringent rules applied to London were suddenly imposed there, Beijing's economy would likely grind to a halt. Of course London should not return to the days when it was shrouded in pea-soupers. But a middle ground needs to be struck. Pricing the motorist off the road may make the air a little cleaner, but it will do nothing for the ailing economy.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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