Can't fund cycling because of pollution fines?

Smog in Paris. Is that why politicians can't see the obvious. Photo Flckr: credit Evan Bench
Promises on climate change in Paris, but the annual pollution fines the UK pays to the EU could be five times more than the Chancellor's cycling budget. Will politicians ever see through the smog and accept the economic argument for investing in an activity that helps tackle environmental issues?

21st birthday – still not listening

This week, world leaders have gathered in Paris for the climate talks to discuss, for the 21st consecutive year, climate change, new technologies and ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This involves twelve days of talks, with this morning’s session focusing on transport.

Whilst available technologies, the data and scientific knowledge may have changed over the years, two things have remained constant throughout. One is that cycling has always been and will remain an environmentally-friendly alternative form of transport, a switch to which could significantly reduce GHG emissions and reduce pollution. The second is the stubborn reluctance of politicians to explore that possibility.

The Downing Street powerhouse – Number 11

An article outlining the environmental and health benefits of cycling would be easy to write, but merely repeat in different words that which has been said many times. Cyclists and environmentalists would readily agree, but thus far policy-makers appear unconvinced. Perhaps we need to talk in a language they find easier to understand.

Notwithstanding Monday’s Paris soundbites where politicians variously professed to know that ‘the eyes of the world were upon them’, and ‘ the planet’s future was in their hands’, in the UK it appears that all decisions are subject to David Cameron’s neighbour at Number 11 agreeing that the funds are available, and that the cost benefit analysis stacks up. We have to talk about the money.

The number we need to start with is £300 million, the amount the Chancellor announced last week would be made available for cycling over the next 5 years. That is the budget for all of England excluding London, but includes £114 million already allocated to the eight cycling ambition cities. This leaves £186 million for the rest of England over five years, or the equivalent of less than £1 per person a year.

£300 million – keep it simple

Keep the £300 million figure in mind and bear with me. Climate change and GHG emissions are a different problem to the issue of air pollution, but remember we need to keep this argument as simple as possible for George Osborne. Transport is a major contributor to GHG emissions largely because of the carbon dioxide from road vehicles. The same vehicles also emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a major cause of air pollution. Different problems, but both a consequence of too many cars on the roads. Hopefully George is still following the nutshell science.

Back to £300 million. That is also the figure the UK is likely to have to pay annually from next year in fines if it fails to comply with EU air pollution targets, specifically NO2 limits. So, keeping this simple and about the money, the UK is likely to be paying the same in annual fines as it is on its five year cycling budget for England - as a country we have since 2010 consistently failed to reduce NO2 levels to safe limits.

Promote cycling or pay a fine  

Looking at the science, we know what happens when there are fewer cars on the road, because car-free days have been held in various cities around the world. NO2 levels drop, with parts of Paris experiencing a 40% reduction in levels in September when merely 30% of the city was car-free for one day.

The economic argument around air pollution is therefore quite simple. It makes sense to spend money encouraging cycling particularly in city centres and urban areas, and make some realistic attempt to reduce NO2 emissions to safe limits. That way the UK might just avoid or minimise fines which dwarf the current cycling investment levels.

Invest now or pay more later

Remaining focused on the money rather than moral, health or environmental issues with air pollution, there is also an economic saving from investing in transport modes such as cycling which help improve air pollution, over and above simply escaping the fines. According to the Government’s Cabinet Office Strategy Unit, poor air quality in urban areas of England is estimated to cost the economy between £4.5 and £10.6 billion pounds a year (based on 2009 prices and values). On the lower estimate, a staggering 75 times more than the amount now made available by the Government annually for cycling, one of the potential solutions to the problem.

If the estimates of the costs of air pollution seem incredibly high, consider these facts. Exposure to roads with high vehicle traffic accounts for  14% of all asthma cases in children (a similar impact to passive smoking).The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also classified air pollution as a leading cause of cancer, especially lung cancer. For 2010 the Government has estimated that in the UK 25,002 deaths of people over 25 were attributable to fine particles (PM2.5) emitted by vehicles. There are many more frightening statistics regarding life expectancy and the health consequences of air pollution.

Sticking with money however, and keeping it simple, WHO estimates the economic cost of deaths from air pollution (both outdoor and indoor) in the UK to be around £54 billion, or around 3.7% of GDP. But yes, despite Cameron’s manifesto promise of a 'cycling revolution', there is just less than £1 per head available each year for cycling. An investment level which is equivalent to the cost of a mile and-a-half of Crossrail, or about two miles of HS2.

Build more roads – the traffic will come

Ignoring the economic arguments outlined above, the UK Government’s approach to dealing with this silent killer, and its costs, is to build more roads, with a further £15.2 billion being allocated to the Roads Investment Scheme over the next five years. 'Build it and they will come' seems to be the philosophy, unless of course its cycling infrastructure.

The tragedy of this policy is perhaps best illustrated in Camden. 58% of pupils in inner London Boroughs are in schools with harmfully high NO2 levels. Camden is one of the worst affected areas, with 368,000 people employed in areas which exceed safe levels. Yes that’s Camden, soon to be hugely disrupted by the HS2 development, with an additional 720 lorries a day estimated to be travelling into and out during construction, adding to the pollution. But we are at risk of veering into issues of safety, health, congestion etc, and we need to stick to the money and keep it simple for George.

A shift to cycling – the money angle   

So much for the cost of pollution, but what about climate change and Paris this week? The Union Cyclist International (UCI) is presenting a report at the summit, published last week, showing that if there was an increase in global cycling from the current 6% of all urban passenger miles to 11% by 2030, and then 14% by 2050, that would cut GHG emissions by 7% (in 2030) and then by 11% (in 2050).

Climate change and global warming is not a transport specific issue, but a modal shift to cycling can play a major part in addressing the problem. In 2011, a European Cycling Federation (ECF) study calculated that if the other European nations could promote cycling so that it reached the level in Denmark, this alone would achieve between 57% and 125% of the reduction needed in transport emissions. But that requires investment at Dutch or Danish levels, and the Dutch invest £20 per head in cycling each year, and have been investing for years.

Getting back to the money again, and George’s budget, what’s the saving if the UK invests more in cycling? Well, the report the UCI are presenting this week concerns global rather than UK cycling, but estimates the global savings from such a shift to cycling at an eye watering $25 trillion by 2050. The Government should be aware of the broad argument already, as their own figures acknowledge that cycling delivers a far higher return on investment (6:1) than investment in road building or HS2.

An economic, environmental, healthy and efficient answer

On Monday in Paris, Cameron claimed he was "serious about decarbonising", yet the recent Autumn Statement from his Chancellor prioritises roads construction over policies and investment which might promote cycling and form part of the solution to environmental issues which have clear financial costs.

Cameron also posed the question as to what politicians would tell their children if they failed to address climate change issues. Would they say it was "all too difficult"? Perhaps if this Government fails to invest in the promised cycling revolution, Cameron’s explanation could be that "I wanted to, but the man next door wouldn’t let me."

Here’s a thought: as politicians contemplate the problems of global warming, pollution, congestion, obesity and rising health costs, they should ask themselves whether they can think of an activity that could positively contribute to all of those issues. And then invest in it.