A problem that cannot be seen is one that politicians will generally choose to ignore. That natural human tendency is dangerously short-sighted. When it comes to air pollution it is literally lethal. Scientists and environmental campaigners have been warning about a build-up of toxins in the atmosphere over British cities for years. Yet only when the filth forms a visible haze, when people are advised to stay indoors because outdoor respiration is palpably harming their health, does the issue register on many political radars.
The smogs of the early 1950s were unignorable, not just because they could be seen but because they were obvious killers. Thousands died when an especially noxious cloud settled over the capital in 1952. The resulting Clean Air Act tackled domestic and industrial coal-burning. Hundreds of thousands are directly affected by equivalent scourges today – particulate emissions, nitrous and sulphurous compounds, mostly belched from cars. Children and the elderly are most at risk; minority ethnic and deprived communities are harder hit; but no one is immune. Parts of London reached the annual legal limit for volumes of nitrogen dioxide within the first five days of 2017. Glasgow, Leeds and other cities are similarly blighted. Almost two-thirds of the population backs an upgrade of clean air legislation.
This week the European commission issued a “final warning” over the UK’s failure to meet anti-pollution standards. The court of justice in…