London air pollution – sophistry in service of a good cause

Zoe Williams, or at least her subeditor, describes London as “the most toxic town on the planet”. The article itself is sophistry in service of a good cause.

Whilst writing now in a personal capacity, I should declare that I am part of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign: a community group opposed to plans for a second Blackwall-style road tunnel underneath the River Thames, linking southeast and east London. As part of our work, we have carried out scientifically validated experiments monitoring local air pollution, and as a result have a wealth of data which show in detail how bad the air is in this part of the capital.

The data we have collected and analysed strongly support our arguments around river crossings and road building. However, it is quite another thing to isolate the specific, localised case of Oxford Street in the West End of central London, and from this claim that London is the most toxic town on the planet. It isn’t, and such rhetorical, unscientific nonsense will not help our cause.

The outrageously high air pollution in Oxford Street is down to it being a stop-start, nose-to-tail, enclosed-by-tall-buildings thoroughfare for largely empty buses and taxis. The rest is hot air.

Science influences policy. Not enough, for sure, which is why evidence-based environmentalists and community campaigners should encourage evidence-based policymaking. The problem with articles such as the latest offering from Zoe Williams is that they reinforce prejudices on both sides of an argument, increase the polarisation of debate, and run the risk of making others look silly.

Newspaper columnists, having as they do thick skins and no shame, will casually brush off negative reaction, and carry on as normal. The subjects of their so often ill-considered opinions are in a more vulnerable position.