This first month of the year, London needed only seven days to breach pollution limits set by the EU for all of 2016. By the end of last week, levels of NO2 (Nitrogen dioxide gas, a pollutant linked to 5,900 London deaths in 2010) had already exceeded the limit of 200 milligrams per cubic meter more than 18 times southwest London’s Putney High Street since January 1st, as much as EU regulations will allow for an entire 12 months. Damning a whole city for a single site’s breach might seem extreme, but the pollution spike was most likely repeated elsewhere, too.
Oxford Street, London’s main shopping street, is notorious for having the highest recorded levels of NO2 anywhere in the world. It has probably exceeded its annual limit already as well—in 2015 this took just four days—but measuring equipment has malfunctioned, so this year at least it’s been spared a headline. In fact, 181 square miles of Greater London currently exceeds yearly NO2 limits according to a new report, leaving London at an NO2 pollution level similar to that of Beijing or Shanghai. These huge overages might come as a shock for a city that has shown some leadership in pioneering congestion charging, adopting bikeshare fairly early, and in fact adopting strict air quality controls as early as the 1950s. What on earth is going on?