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Opinion: 'It doesn’t make sense to allow dirty diesels from the last century to travel on inner-city streets'

Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe believes that we need to restrict the amount of vehicles entering Dublin every morning – as “our lives depend on it”.

Image: Shutterstock/Lightspruch

CLEAN AIR IS crucial for human health and well-being, and yet many of our cities and towns in Ireland are suffering from poor air quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us that poor air kills over 1,500 people per year and we need to act.

In Dublin the EPA suggests that many locations, particularly in the inner city, are exceeding European Union annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide. That’s why I met the EPA’s air quality team earlier this week to discuss what needs to be done. Patrick Kenny and Michael Lehane from the Air Quality management unit of the EPA met me close to the St John’s Road West monitoring point where high pollution levels have been recorded. They told me that more air monitoring stations are being rolled out under the National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme 2017-2022. 

What are we learning? Increased monitoring is showing us that air pollution levels are exceeding EU standards on an annual basis in city centre locations. Pearse Street and Gardiner Street were particularly bad, but Amiens Street and other traffic-congested streets have high pollution levels.

The M50 is a significant pollution location, but levels drop rapidly as you move away from the road. 

The EPA’s Urban Environmental Indicators report on nitrogen dioxide says that this gas contributes to forming smog, and is strongly linked to traffic emissions.

Backyard burning

Much of the data came from computer based dispersion modelling using publicly available data on emissions from traffic, industry and other sources, but the report also based its work on diffusion tube sampling equipment placed on busy streets in 2016 and 2017.

One sampling point recorded levels 60% higher than EU guide levels.

Backyard burning and open fires also contribute to poor air quality, and this must also be tackled. There’s also the issue of ‘citizen science’. Crowdsourcing data is easier than ever – cheaper sensors allow almost anyone to upload clear data on air quality.

Work is also needed on measuring human health in heavily-polluted areas, and the EPA is working with Trinity College on this research.

Clean air is also related to social class – poor people are suffering the consequences of heavy traffic on the streets where they live.

The EPA’s Urban Environmental Indicators report calls for strong co-ordinated action by all to improve air quality in Dublin. We need to move to cleaner vehicles and encourage alternatives such as walking and cycling. The report reproduces advice from the World Health Organisation suggesting that young children should be lifted above the level of vehicle exhausts – but perhaps we should be reducing traffic levels first!

At a European level, the Clean Air For Europe Directive (2008/50/EC) is now a decade old. A ‘fitness check’ of the Directive is underway, and I intend working with my colleagues in the European Parliament to ensure it is fit for purpose. At national level it is crucial that Minister Richard Bruton implements the 2019 Climate Action Plan as reducing greenhouse gas emissions is closely linked to improving air quality.

He needs to stand up to the coal lobby and face down their threats of legal action against a nation-wide smoky coal ban. He must work with Minister Shane Ross to expand public transport and reduce fares. Legislation for low-emission vehicle zones in our cities and towns must be provided. It doesn’t make sense to allow dirty diesels from the last century to travel on inner-city streets.

A clean air zone in Dublin’s city centre is long-overdue, along with more car-free streets.

Active travel must be funded and rolled out so that people can leave the car at home. Local authorities must produce air quality management plans. My Green Party colleagues have already written to Dublin City Council’s Chief Executive asking him to act.

Producing a plan can take two years, but the evidence shows that early action can save lives. The widespread prevalence of asthma and other respiratory diseases shows that we need to act in advance of a detailed plan being enacted.

As the Asthma Society of Ireland states: “Now is the time to clean Ireland’s air.” If that means restricting the amount of vehicles entering Dublin every morning, then so be it.

Our lives depend on it.

Ciarán Cuffe is the Green party MEP for Dublin, and has asthma.


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