Editorial from Sunday Herald, 20 September 2015
When Liz Ashton lived on a busy, polluted street in Edinburgh, she was worried about dying. “It frightens me that when I lived in the city centre I could have had a fatal asthma attack,” she said.
She is just one of the many thousands of reasons why Scotland needs to get serious about air pollution. For years, the average levels of toxic fumes on dozens of urban streets have exceeded legal safety limits.
Health standards for nitrogen dioxide and tiny sooty particles that Scotland should have met in 2010 have been breached, and then breached again. In April, after a long court battle, the UK Supreme Court ruled that governments had to take urgent action.
Now we learn that the official death toll from the pollution is much higher than previously acknowledged. Instead of killing 2,000 people a year in Scotland, evidence from government scientists suggests it could be killing at least 3,500 a year.
Whatever the number is, it is unacceptable. As critics have pointed out, if thousands of people were dying as a result of treatable diseases, crime or drugs, ministers would declare a national emergency.
Instead we have an unimpressive consultation, and a vague promise of a future ‘low emission strategy’. This is not good enough.
Ministers should not be scared of confronting the problem head on. Our addiction to cars – and to the burning of fossil fuels – must be broken.
A radical shift to cycling and walking, better, cleaner public transport, and more traffic-free zones will make our city streets much nicer, friendlier, quieter places to be, as well as saving lives. If they can do it in Zurich and Copenhagen, why can’t we do it here?
Manufacturers have to be forced by legislation to make cleaner cars, and we need to be more ambitious about introducing green fuel cars. One solution that could be implemented now in Scottish cities is a series of well-funded ‘low-emission zones’.
The Scottish Government would have to give local authorities enough money to set up and police the zones. But the investment needed would be small in comparison with the spending on roads and the health costs of pollution – and it would save lives.
Scotland has led the way by banning indoor smoking and plastic bags. Could we not now make another real and lasting difference to our collective quality of life by curbing killer pollution from cars?