The experience of Beijing compared to London is one of similarities and contrasts. The sheer scale of growth in Beijing is incredible and the city is expanding in all directions in a grid system surrounded by a series of massive concentric ring roads whereas London is really a collection of small communities that have grown together over centuries. However they do share an environmental challenge with air quality.
While the Beijing smog has captured the headlines and made for some dramatic photo opportunities, London is not as immune to the ills of air pollution as we might like to think. Although the UK’s air quality problems are less visible to the naked eye, or indeed the camera, they are still very much an issue. Once the Beijing Games are over, and all eyes turn towards London, we will have to prove that our clear skies are not harbouring an invisible threat.
London is widely recognised as one of the most polluted cities in Europe for tiny particulates. These exacerbate conditions such as asthma and lung disease, with poor air quality resulting in between 12,000 and 24,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. As well as this human cost, there is also the financial cost to consider of treating these preventable illnesses.
To help combat this problem, and ensure the best possible air quality for athletes while earning green credentials in the process, the ODA has announced its aspiration to encourage 100% of spectators to travel to the Games by public transport, by bicycle or by foot. London can also expect the exciting new Javelin rail service, which will speed spectators from central London to the Olympic Park in seven minutes. Construction materials will also, as much as possible, be transported by rail and water.
But this is not a lasting solution to improving London’s air quality standards. Because road vehicles are largely responsible this pollution, London has already put in place the UK’s first Low Emissions Zone. I really hope this goes at least some way to ensuring that the cleaner air quality we hope to achieve for the Olympic Games is sustained, and that after the tourists leave London maintains the legacy of cleaner air.
In Beijing, rare days when the smog has lifted and air quality improves are known as ‘blue sky’ days. British summers being what they are, cloudless skies aren’t guaranteed for the 2012 Games, but I do believe the outlook is bright for cleaner air quality in four years time.
This post also appears at www.bbc.co.uk/london