Comment: Our cities need an all-electric future

Air pollution is already killing 2,000 a year in Scotland. Picture: TSPL

Air pollution is already killing 2,000 a year in Scotland. Picture: TSPL

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THERE’S no better way of cutting urban air pollution, and Scotland could be a world leader in the field. So what’s keeping us? asks Barny Evans

As the Scottish Government focuses on its Low Emission Strategy (LES), aimed at improving the quality of the air its citizens breathe by 2020, the current prognosis in some of the nation’s major cities is not an encouraging one.

Earlier this month the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth unveiled air quality data collected over the past year from the government’s own monitoring network showing 13 Scottish sites breaching the annual average limit for nitrogen dioxide, while a total of 19 sites breached the annual limit for pollution levels.

According to the charity, the levels of toxic pollution found in many of Scotland’s urban areas are breaking legal limits that were supposed to be met in 2010, with some key streets even more polluted than they were in 2013.

Friends of the Earth cited figures suggesting air pollution is responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in Scotland each year and is costing its health service up to £2 billion annually.

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Of course, improving air quality isn’t the sole responsibility of government. It takes business, non-governmental organisations, charities and, importantly, individuals to do their part. However, as we are seeing with initiatives like the LES, government does have an important policy role to make change happen.

A key aspect of policy, which research shows can make a huge impact in the level of air quality, is to plan for the long- term switch to all-electric forms of heating and transportation across Scotland’s main centres over the next few decades.

Our recent report, Powering Ahead – Fast Track to an All-Electric City, was focused on London but could equally apply in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen where unacceptably high levels of air and noise pollution and CO2 emissions continue to have an impact on public health.

The analysis we conducted shows that the move to an all-electric urban future can transform the cities who implement it from air pollution laggards to global leaders in terms of the air quality standards offered to their citizens.

The report followed a poll showing one in four Londoners had seriously contemplated leaving the capital due to air and noise pollution. This was cited as the highest concern of the city’s residents after crime and the cost of living.

An all-electric city, however, offers a bold alternative where streets blighted by traffic fumes and noise are changed into more enjoyable and healthier places to be.

How then can we deliver this major change?

In the Powering Ahead report we produced a number of proposals which could ensure London achieves this goal by 2035. This included requiring electric heating (in the form of heat pumps) in all new houses and offices from 2018; replacing all existing gas boilers at the end of their life with heat pumps; raising training levels across the city, enabling plumbers, electricians and architects to have the right skills required to make the transformation to all-electric systems; creating a city-wide electric vehicle hire scheme and setting up ultra-low emission zones across the city.

As in London, the all-electric model could also reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution whilst improving air quality significantly in Scottish cities. Given Scotland’s significant role in producing much of the UK’s renewable electricity, it is in a great position to deliver greater energy efficiencies and see the benefits of an all-electric city policy.

As a nation which is on course to produce 100 per cent of its own electricity requirements through renewables within the next five years, Scotland is better placed than many other parts of the UK to capitalise on this opportunity as using this electricity locally would reduce transmission losses.

However, this can only happen if we see an overall vision and clarity of purpose combined with a long-term commitment over 20 to 30 years, meaning that successive governments would need to maintain this commitment.

By embracing the concept of the all-electric city, Scotland can tackle noise and air pollution, massively reduce CO2 emissions, create a healthier and happier environment and promote joined-up government with clear benefits in other policy areas, not least public health and well-being. Implementing this innovative policy can deliver the low emission future to which Scotland aspires.

• Barny Evans is an associate of sustainability and energy at the international environmental consultancy WSP

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