On Cars, Pollution and Common Sense
June 2018 was a good month for those of us on the side of truth and common sense in environmental matters. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has written of the decline of media interest in the mantra of “saving the planet.” In the Wall Street Journal, Steven F. Hayward has gone further. He tells us of “the descent of climate change into the abyss of social-justice identity politics,” and says “climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue.” Meanwhile, a so-called wind drought has caused the UK media to wake up at last to the fact that wind power is useless for generating the base load energy that is vital to our civilization. And even the government are talking of bringing nuclear power back into the mix.
But in at least one other area the greens’ assault on our lifestyles and freedoms is still growing. I refer, specifically, to their attacks on cars and car drivers. Not only is the mayor of London already making it impossibly expensive for all but the very rich to drive their cars in London. Not only is he seeking to widen further the range of his plundering schemes. But the anti-car lobby in the UK are seeking to restrict, and eventually to ban, car use on a national scale. And in this effort they are using a particular kind of pollution, called PM2.5, as their poster child.
The anti-car movement
There has been an anti-car movement in the UK since at least the 1970s. But it was in about 1993 that the anti-car propaganda machine really got going. Our TV screens showed staged pictures of rural roads chock-a-block with cars. Of traffic jams in foggy weather, complete with smoking exhaust pipes. Of the aftermaths of accidents. It was hard, even back then, to avoid thinking that we drivers were being set up. Moreover, organizations that should have defended us, like the Automobile Association, looked the other way, or even added their voices to the witch-hunt. Since then, we have suffered creeping speed limits, chicanes, speed bumps, bus and cycle lanes, new housing without adequate parking, ever rising fuel taxes, and extortionate schemes like the London congestion charge and ultra-low emissions zone.
Why have we car drivers been treated like witches, scapegoats or milch cows? I think much of it is because the car is a strong and visible symbol of individuality and independence. Those that hate the human individual – be they socialists, closet fascists, greens or supporters of other bad political ideologies – find car drivers an irresistible target. And this is all tied up with an agenda of control over and micro-managing of every aspect of our lives, that green activists and others like them have being pushing for decades. One recent study in Scotland, for example, advocated “a combined strategy of radical change in travel patterns, mode and vehicle choice, vehicle occupancy and on-road driving behaviour with high electrification and phasing out of conventional petrol and diesel road vehicles.” That’s typical of what we’re up against.
So, what is the accusation being levelled against us over PM2.5? Here’s how the Guardian put it in an article last October: “Every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds global guidelines for one of the most dangerous toxic particles… Every area in the capital exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) limits for a damaging type of particle known as PM2.5… Nearly 95% of the capital’s population live in areas that exceed the limit by 50% or more. In central London the average annual levels are almost double the WHO limit of 10 µg/m3 [micrograms per cubic metre].” And the article quotes clean air campaigners saying things like, “Toxic air is poisoning our children,” and calling on the mayor of London to “take more urgent, immediate action in light of the scale of the crisis.”
Sounds like a real and serious problem, eh? But this is typical Grauniad reporting. Facts are presented to support only the alarmist side, and tweaked to show it in the best possible light. And as usual with such reporting, what they don’t say matters far more than what they do say.
The WHO and the UN
First, about the World Health Organization. The WHO is a United Nations agency. And the UN is the primary force pushing the world-wide green agenda, which has been a cause of so much pain to all of us over the last 30 years and more.
All this is a matter of public record. You can trace UN involvement right back to the first Earth Day in 1970. You can learn about the UN’s 1982 World Charter for Nature resolution. You can read the 1987 UN report Our Common Future, which set the scene for the 1992 Rio summit and everything that has followed from it. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on outdoor air quality and health, which promotes policies like “prioritizing rapid urban transit, walking and cycling networks in cities as well as rail interurban freight and passenger travel.”
You can read about Maurice Strong, first director of the UN Environment Programme, with his scandal-ridden business career as well as his many UN projects and his deep green activism. You will probably be horrified by Strong’s 1997 quote: “Frankly, we may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse.” On environmental matters, you may well conclude, the UN and its agency the WHO are extremist organizations, enemies of our civilization, and not to be trusted in any way.
Next, what exactly is PM2.5? PM stands for “particulate matter.” That is, small particles in the air we breathe. The “2.5” means particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. These are considered the most toxic kind of particulate matter, because they are small enough to get through the body’s defences into the lungs. They can also carry chemical poisons, like salts of nickel or arsenic.
And PM2.5 has characteristics, that make it a perfect weapon for globalist control freaks to use to further their goal of a totalitarian world government. For the small particles, which make up PM2.5, tend to remain in the air for quite a long time. And so, PM2.5 pollution can travel far from its source, even across national borders. This helps the UN and the European Union in their claims for international control over these emissions. (Never mind that the worst PM2.5 episodes in London and south-east England usually occur in calm weather with winds from the south-east; and in these conditions, a lot of the pollution comes from the European continent!)
To add to all this, PM2.5 is very hard to measure with any confidence. A 2012 report from the Air Quality Expert Group says: “the metric does not correspond to a definite physical or chemical component of the air but is in effect defined by the measurement method itself.” And this is a consequence of “the metric featuring in legislation before a good scientific understanding of airborne particles was available.” In other words, it was politicians that got us into this mess.
Concentrations versus emissions
To understand air pollution issues, it’s important to distinguish between concentrations and emissions. The concentration of something is how much of it there is in a given volume. It’s measured in mass per volume of air. For PM2.5, this is usually given in micrograms per cubic metre. Emissions, on the other hand – that is, air pollution that is attributable to human civilization – are measured in units like thousands of tons per year. Absent sinks or other sources of the same pollution, emissions of a pollutant by human activities will cause a proportionate increase in its concentration. But in the real world the relation is, to say the least, indirect.
The long term health effects of pollution – whatever they might or might not be – depend on concentrations, not emissions. Therefore, initially the focus on PM2.5 was on concentrations. An EU directive issued in 2008 set targets and limits on these concentrations. The EU set a maximum for PM2.5, averaged over a year, of 25 micrograms per cubic metre; for brevity, I’ll call this 25 units. This started off in 2010 as a “target,” which is defined as “to be attained by taking all necessary, cost-effective measures.” In 2015, it was hardened into a “limit,” any breach of which is likely to result in prosecution by the EU.
On the other hand, back in 2005 the WHO issued its “guideline” figure for PM2.5 of only 10 units. This is an amazing difference; the WHO’s number is just two-fifths of the EU limit! And it’s actually worse than that. For there’s a background level of PM2.5 in the air, which would be there even if there was no human industrial civilization. I’ve heard this stated, by a UK expert, to be 7 units. (Though I think it might actually be less, because both Australia and New Zealand report average PM2.5 lower than 6 units). But if we accept this expert’s view, then compared to the EU limit, to meet the WHO guideline would require humans to reduce our contribution to PM2.5 levels from 18 to 3 units, a factor of 6. That isn’t going to happen without the breakdown of civilization as we know it; which, I suspect, was Maurice Strong’s aim all along.
Now, where are we today in terms of actual, measured concentrations in the UK? The average in London is about 14 units. A few sites in central London are above 20; but as of 2015, there was no place in London at which the EU limit was broken. And the averages in urban areas and at roadside sites throughout the UK in 2017 were 9.6 and 9.9 units – very close both to each other and to the WHO guideline.
So, what are the main sources of PM2.5 emissions? Diesel engines are one. (Petrol engines emit very little PM2.5). However, emissions from diesel car engines have been cut by an order of magnitude in the last two decades. Diesel cars built since 2010 emit only a tenth as much PM2.5 as those built in 2001 or before.
Note that this is a different issue from nitrogen oxide pollution from diesels, which has become a problem in the UK for two reasons. First, Blair and Brown’s 2001 decision – aided and abetted by their scientific advisor, David King – to encourage people to buy, and manufacturers to make, diesels ahead of petrol cars. Second, the manufacturers’ failure to make diesel engines that keep, under real world driving conditions, to the standards they can meet in the laboratory.
To return to PM2.5. There are claims that cars cause significant emissions of PM2.5 in other ways, too: tyre wear, brake wear and road surface abrasion. Extremists are using these claims to argue for eventual bans on petrol cars and even electric cars, as well as diesels. However, it isn’t at all clear how significant these PM2.5 emissions actually are. DEFRA, the UK government agency tasked with providing statistics on pollution, seem to think that most of the emissions of PM from these causes are probably particles larger than, and so less toxic than, PM2.5.
There is, however, one source of PM2.5 in the UK air, which has become very significant over the last four years or so. That is, the burning of wood. It’s estimated that this source produces more than twice as much PM2.5 as all road traffic put together. And yet, the government are actively encouraging and even subsidizing people to burn wood! Madness.
And there’s more madness yet. Efforts to control PM2.5 pollution, up to the early 2000s, had been quite successful. By 2002, emissions had been cut almost to a quarter of their 1970 level. Yet, in 1999, Blair’s government went further, and signed the Gothenburg Protocol. They agreed to set, for the first time, strict controls on emissions of a number of pollutants, including PM2.5. Then in 2012, Cameron and the Coalition agreed to extend this protocol. This extension not only set specific limits on PM2.5 emissions, but also committed to further reductions in the future. This led to the 2016 EU “National Emission Ceilings” directive, which required the UK to cut PM2.5 emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, and no less than 54 per cent below by 2030.
But by 2005, all the low hanging fruit – all the emissions reductions which could be achieved without causing a lot of pain to millions of people – had been picked. Since then, PM2.5 emissions in the UK have been going down only slightly, and today they are pretty much static from year to year. 2020 is now fast approaching, and there isn’t a hope in hell of meeting the 30 per cent reduction Cameron and co agreed to in 2012. That’s why this is a hot issue today.
The case for the car
There is no doubt that cars are a blessing to those who drive them and ride in them. The car is comfortable, smooth, quiet and private. It keeps you warm and dry. It goes when and where you want it to. It is good at carrying loads – including children. And for most UK journeys outside city centres, it is faster than the alternatives.
Contrast the other means of transport, which the car-haters tell us we should be using rather than our cars. Walking is far too slow for all but the shortest journeys. Public transport, on the other hand, is often slow, indirect, uncomfortable and crowded. It goes according to a schedule which probably doesn’t suit you; and it may not be practical, or even available at all, for your journey. Or it may fail to turn up on time. Moreover, you have to wait for it out in the cold and wet. As to the bicycle, it’s a fine means of transport in its place. I know this, because I once bicycled 4,500 miles from Nova Scotia to California! But now I’m 65, live at the top of a hill, suffer from gout and play the tuba, cycling simply isn’t a practical way for me to get around.
Can we quantify how much benefit cars provide to their drivers and passengers? In 2017, the Daily Express calculated the lifetime cost of running a car in the UK as £169,000. Over 50 years, that’s almost £3,400 per year. That doesn’t include the capital costs of buying the car in the first place – for a £12,000 car which lasts 8 years, that’s another £1,500 per year. Thus, the more than 25 million car owners in the UK are each shelling out every year around £5,000 on average. So, their perception of the benefit from their cars must be at least that large! Anyone that wants to take away that benefit, or even to restrict it, has to put forward a very strong case. Don’t they?
So, how does the cost of the pollution that cars emit, or otherwise cause, compare with the huge benefit they provide? Last year, I wrote a paper called “The Social Costs of Air Pollution from Cars in the UK.” That paper is available on the Internet; but it’s very long, and quite technical. One of the things I did was calculate the social cost – that is, the total cost to all those affected – of PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars, in pounds per car per year. I used figures from government reports produced in 2009 and 2010, based on data from 2008. And the social cost I calculated was £183 per car per year.
Now £183 per car per year is significant, even if it is way less than the £5,000+ benefit per year to the driver. But since 2008, PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars have been cut by an order of magnitude. For diesel cars built since 2010, I calculated the social cost of PM2.5 emissions as just £21 per car per year. In comparison to the benefit, that is peanuts; and for petrol cars, the cost is zero! Even if we throw in an allowance for PM2.5 emissions from brakes and tyres – an estimate I’ve seen is that these may be around two-thirds of the emissions from engines – we are looking at a social cost for PM2.5 of only £14 per car per year for petrol cars and £35 for diesels. In a world of common sense, that would offer no justification at all for any restrictions.
There is a principle called “polluter pays,” which is widely accepted and has been incorporated into environmental law in many countries. This is an application of the common sense principle that each individual bears responsibility for the effects on others of his or her own voluntary actions. In the case of air pollution, which arises as a side effect of other human activities such as driving cars, it implies that polluters should pay according to the amount and the toxicity of the pollution they cause.
To apply the “polluter pays” principle rightly, therefore, the social cost of the pollution must first be quantified, objectively and accurately. Then polluters should each be made to pay their own share of that cost, according to the fraction of the pollution for which they are responsible. In a common sense world, that payment should then be routed as compensation to the people who suffer the negative effects of that pollution – for example, those who live close to main roads.
In schemes like the London ultra low emissions zone, however, the charges bear no relation at all to social cost. For example, new diesel cars are not charged at all, although they have a higher social cost than petrol cars, even 15 year old ones. But diesels built between 2010 and 2015 (like mine), which emit no more PM2.5 than a brand new diesel car and only slightly more nitrogen oxides, are charged full whack! Moreover, the scheme doesn’t give anything to the people impacted by the pollution. It is merely a rip-off, through which the mayor of London seeks to rake in vast sums of money to use on his pet projects.
As if all this wasn’t enough, there are very great uncertainties in the government figures I used to calculate the social costs per car. And there’s a backstory, too. Those familiar with the backstory on global warming will, I’m sure, recognize a lot of similarities between the two.
In the early 1990s, two major studies were carried out on the association between PM2.5 and death rates in the USA. One was the Harvard “Six Cities” study of 1993, the other was the American Cancer Society’s “Cancer Prevention Study II,” published in 1995. Both were based on data collected in the 1980s, and both concluded that there was a strong correlation between PM2.5 concentrations and mortality rates.
However, the raw data used in these studies was not made publicly available. In 2013, the US House of Representatives issued a subpoena to the Environmental Protection Agency for the data; but it was not complied with. Only recently, with the change of administration, have some other scientists been allowed access to versions of this data.
There were enough criticisms of these studies, that in 2000 a team from the Health Effects Institute were allowed special access to the data in order to do a re-analysis of the work. They declared: “Overall, the reanalyses assured the quality of the original data, replicated the original results, and tested those results against alternative risk models and analytic approaches without substantively altering the original findings of an association between indicators of particulate matter air pollution and mortality.” But the review did say: “No single epidemiologic study can be the basis for determining a causal relation between air pollution and mortality.”
The 1995 ACS study, updated in 2002, was used by the UK government when, in 2009, they tried to work out how big a problem PM2.5 was in the UK. They accepted the “risk coefficient” (6 per cent) from this study as being applicable to the UK also; though it isn’t clear on what scientific basis they did this. And they tried a novel way of estimating the uncertainty, which amounted in essence to seven experts each waving a wet finger in the air, and pooling the results. The result was a factor of 12 between their upper and lower bounds!
In a follow-up report in 2010, they concluded that in 2008 PM2.5 had caused nearly 29,000 deaths in the UK, with an average loss of life for the individuals affected of 11.7 years. My sanity checker finds this figure rather implausible; it means that more than 5 per cent of all deaths of people aged over 30 in the UK in 2008 were caused by PM2.5! However, it’s the best figure I have, so it’s the one on which I based my own calculations.
According to their “75% plausibility interval,” though, the actual number of deaths could have been anywhere between 4,700 and 51,000. So my figure of £21 per diesel car per year for the social cost of PM2.5 emissions could have been anywhere from £37 down to £3.40. For anyone to suggest yet more heavy taxes on cars, or restricting or even banning them, for the sake of such a tiny impact and in the presence of such huge uncertainties, is lunacy, if not also bad faith.
Just as with global warming, there have been scientists who don’t follow the “consensus” narrative. And just as with global warming, these scientists have been victimized and treated as pariahs by the establishment. Prominent among them is James Enstrom, an epidemiologist from Los Angeles. Enstrom used to work on ACS projects; but they terminated his funding in 1994. In 2006, the ACS accused Enstrom of (in the words of Wikipedia) “misrepresenting scientific evidence to deny that passive smoking was harmful.” And in 2010 his university, UCLA, tried to fire him, and he had to take the case to court.
Enstrom’s view on PM2.5, as far as I can make it out, is as follows. First, the correlation between PM2.5 and mortality in the ACS study was far too high. Indeed, he accuses the study’s authors of making “selective use” of the data. Second, a non-smoker (like me) only inhales about 5 grams of PM2.5 in a lifetime. That’s a calculation I checked myself; my result was 4.6 grams in the expected lifetime of an average Londoner. Third, to be sure that PM2.5 is as toxic as is claimed, we need a good understanding of how, chemically and biologically, it causes its toxic effects – as we do indeed have for other highly toxic substances, like arsenic. But what, exactly, are these mechanisms for PM2.5? And fourth, other studies, notably in California, have shown no evidence even of correlation between PM2.5 and mortality, let alone causation.
The precautionary principle
There’s one more detail I must cover; the perversion of the precautionary principle. I have written in depth about the subject elsewhere, so this will be only a summary. In its original form the principle, whose name translates literally from the German as “fore-care principle,” can be put as “Look before you leap.” It can also be thought of as “First, do no harm.”
But environmentalists have cleverly re-interpreted and perverted it. One step in that direction was article 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
This makes no sense. For you need a very high degree of scientific certainty indeed, in order to be able to estimate costs and benefits accurately enough to decide whether a proposed action will be cost-effective or not. A factor of 12 between upper and lower bounds is no good! You need something more like plus or minus 10 per cent. And even that won’t be good enough if the margin between costs and benefits is close.
But it’s worse than that. For in 2002, the UK government perverted the principle even further. “The purpose of the precautionary principle,” they wrote, “is to create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk.” This says, in effect, that you must make a decision to “do something,” even if the data you have isn’t good enough to make any decision at all! It gives their take on the precautionary principle almost exactly the opposite effect to its true meaning.
Some common sense
It’s time, at last, to apply some good, old-fashioned common sense to this issue.
For governments, the precautionary principle, in its true form, says that you must not take any action – and most of all, any action which harms or may harm innocent people – until you’re confident the benefits will be greater than the costs. After all, isn’t government supposed to be for the benefit of the governed? All the governed? And doesn’t that mean that governments should never, ever make a commitment on behalf of the governed, unless it’s absolutely clear that it can be met without causing pain to the people they are supposed to be serving?
And yet, on this issue the UK government has, again and again, put their own green virtue signalling ahead of the interests of the people. Major and co, if they had rightly applied the precautionary principle, should never have signed up to Rio. Blair and co were anti-car right from the start; one of the very first things they did was the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997! They signed up to Gothenburg. They encouraged diesel engines rather than petrol, thereby causing huge amounts of PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide pollution which need not have happened. And they aided and abetted the perversion of the precautionary principle.
Cameron and co, when they got power, compounded the felony. They signed up to the 2012 extension of Gothenburg, when it should have been damn obvious that the commitments they were making on PM2.5 would be impossible to meet. And they subsidized the burning of wood – yet more government-caused pollution which need never have happened.
Now, what of the business case for and against the car? The benefits of cars, to all those who use them, are orders of magnitude greater than the social costs caused by pollution from those cars. And that’s using the government’s own figures. For control freaks to try to use PM2.5 as an excuse to impose an anti-car agenda is not only deranged, but also extremely dishonest. Besides which, our freedom to choose the mode of travel which best suits us is more important than opportunities for selfish politicians to flaunt their green credentials. And all this is exactly the kind of crap that so many of us voted for Brexit in order to get away from!
Further: The science on the toxicity of PM2.5 is dubious. The original data, on which that science was based, has been kept hidden for decades. The uncertainties are huge. The social costs of pollution from cars may turn out, when examined objectively and without political bias, to be lower yet than the figures I gave here. And even if the claimed PM2.5 problem was a real one, how can you regulate something that you can’t even measure with confidence or accuracy?
Earlier, I referenced the “polluter pays” principle. And I agreed with it – provided individuals are required to pay only for the social cost of the pollution they cause, and no more. I wonder if, perhaps, we should make a companion principle, which I’ll call “politicker pays?” Should we not hold politicians and others, that have promoted or supported bad policies like the green agenda, individually responsible for their share of the damage done to us by those policies? Wouldn’t everyone in politics or government (or even science!) then be forced to use, in everything they do on our behalf, the precautionary principle? In its true form: “First, do no harm?”