Wednesday 2 April 2014

Air pollution incident - where do I collect my cheque?

We're in the middle of a severe air pollution incident in England. Actually I'm slightly put out because it hasn't rained here and whenever there's one of these foreign dust falling from the sky incidents I seem to miss it, and apparently the cause is that we're being deluged with dust from Africa and pollution 'from the continent'.

There was a lady on tellybox this morning standing by a main road in Birmingham, with thundering articulated lorries belching oily black death, cars spluttering out plumes of cancerous toxins and buses coughing up an early, soot clogged demise. I didn't see any cyclists during the news article - I assume the BBC had them all shot to avoid ruining the delicious irony of the piece. The reporter was talking about how the air is bad because of the weather and because of the Sahara. Presumably she and her camera team then each got into their cars and added no further air quality problems because we can, apparently, blame them on the Sahara. And perhaps the French. Almost certainly the French.

Its hard not to be struck by the apparent hypocrisy of this - if you're part of the problem, which is that you're one of the millions of people sitting in their pollution machines complaining that there are too many people in pollution machines clogging the roads in front of you, you probably oughtn't be complaining about air quality quite so much. But for this to be genuine hypocrisy there has to be, at some level, some understanding that you're the cause - and here the much over-used 'cognitive dissonance' factor comes in to play. Its the same one as 'its too dangerous for my kids to walk to school because of the cars, so I'm driving them'. Once again, somehow the obvious culprit, our dependence on motorised transport to fulfil our daily needs, can't possibly be to blame. The disconnect between our actions and their consequences is staggering.

News and, oddly, weather reports back this up. Its not about cars, its about strange weather not blowing the pollution away. Its not about carbon particles in the air, its about the Sahara. Its not NOx gases created in the near unimaginable heat and pressure of the internal combustion engine (or 'portable death fire' as it could correctly be termed) reacting in sunlight to form brown nasty shit that makes the horizon look like a chocolaty mess, its about foreign air slowly drifting over East Anglia.

We have VED and fuel duty for a reason, but they're not working. Our air is too dirty to allow us to safely breathe, a problem we've been ignoring for so long that our whole country is being taken to court over it. Actually if only we had been just ignoring it - we've been caught out allegedly trying to cook the books over it - our politicians don't seem to understand that 'not getting caught' isn't the same as 'not having a problem'.

So I wonder, is it time to take VED a step further? Ought fuel duty be used for what its meant to be for? Perhaps we should consider, if these are indeed meant to be to ameliorate environmental harm, should we perhaps make the polluter pay those who aren't polluting? 

I cycle to work. Where do I collect my cheque?


  1. You must realise that the great taboo is motoring. You must not suggest that anything that any motorist does anywhere, in any way at all, is problematic. And if it is, it isn't their fault. it is another motorist. Or the French.

    Of course, if you do want to talk about the costs motorists incur on others, take a look at and

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

  2. Actually, I need a basic correction to the above comment.

    The taboo is not, of course, motoring - which is encouraged, supported, promoted etc. as much as (and indeed more than) is possible.

    I meant that there is a taboo on TALKING ABOUT motoring in way which suggests that there is something questionable about it.

    RD, Chair RDRF