Clean Air Day 2023: Smog, lies and Villiers

To mark Clean Air Day 2023, we hone in on a London march looking to raise awareness about disinformation and conspiracy theories in one of the city’s most polluted constituencies. 

silhouette of buildings during sunset

Earlier this year, Georgie Hughes, a talented young journalist then working for Environment Journal and our sister title, Air Quality News, made the decision to boldly go where few dare to tread. Breadcrumbs in hand ensuring a swift exit if necessary, she plunged into the murky world of online climate disinformation in response to news that 2022 had scene ‘denialist’ content on Twitter spike by 300%. 

Back in the real world, she focused attention on how false claims and misleading information ‘sows seeds’ of distrust towards Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. And this concept – where motor vehicle traffic is greatly reduced in a specific area to bring emissions and congestion down – isn’t the only big environmental idea to feel the wrath and impact of inaccuracies and falsehoods. 

Today is Clean Air Day 2023, and to mark the occasion Barnet Mums For Lungs are marching against Theresa Villiers MP. Joined by Barnet Friends of the Earth and Mothers CAN, the aim is to address recent anti-Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion protests that have taken place in the area, apparently supported by Ms. Villiers, among other people. The issue lying not in the right of the public to gather and have their voice heard, but the fact that voice was collectively amplifying conspiratorial slogans such as ‘Stop The Toxic Air Lie’. 

It’s important to understand the context here. In 2020, Ms Villiers published a blog on the importance of cleaning up air for her constituents and urged for more action to be taken, no doubt aware of the fact that Barnet recorded the second highest death toll linked to air quality in the capital the previous year, as per Imperial College London analysis. 

The ULEZ expansion is a somewhat blunt tool to change the status quo, but its impact has been remarkable, with NO2, carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) plummeting by up 46% in central and inner areas covered by the scheme according to the London Assembly. Nevertheless, uncertainty has dominated conversations on the subject – funding for upgrades, retrofits and vehicle scrappage high on the agenda – but this only accentuates the importance of people being given clear and accurate information about risks, practicalities and overall aims of these types of measures. 

In facilitating the anti-ULEZ event, Ms Villiers – former Environment Secretary no less – offered the platform which concerned constituents are legally entitled to. But for all intents and purposes she did little to stop myths and disinformation from spreading as a result. Which is particularly perplexing given two years ago she was arguing in the House of Commons that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wasn’t taking enough bold steps to bring air pollution in the city down. 

‘I’m concerned that the Mayor of London has not made more progress on air quality measures or delivering zero emission buses, despite the very significant resources he has been given by the government to do this,’ she told Westminster’s lower chamber. ‘The Government’s 2017 Clean Air Strategy was praised by the World Health Organisation as “an example for the rest of the world to follow”. But we need to go further and faster.’

Notwithstanding the fact that Khan is a Labour mayor, and therefore rarely attracts praise from Conservatives – which brings us to a different argument about whether the climate crisis can be tackled with a term-based political system that actively promotes careerism and opportunism – Villiers’ apparent contradiction is confusing, at best. Meanwhile, her failure to focus on facts while ensuring everyone who wants it has a voice in the ULEZ-Barnet debate, could be considered dangerous when seen through the smog of London on high alert for air pollution this week. 

For more Clean Air Day 2023 news and option, head to our sister site, Air Quality News.

More on air pollution: 

Biodiversity monitoring is possible, just look at air quality

Final speaker announced for inaugural SW & Wales Air Quality Conference

Climate campaigners urge Scotland to phase out oil and gas

Image: Ana Paula Grimaldi





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