Expert on airborne pollution to speak at task force meeting

By Cllr Alexis Rowell Chair, Camden Sustainability Task Force, Camden Council Next Wednesday the Camden Council Sustainability Task Force will meet to revisit the thorny issue of air quality. When we looked at this subject last time – as part of our wo

By Cllr Alexis Rowell

Chair, Camden Sustainability Task Force, Camden Council

Next Wednesday the Camden Council Sustainability Task Force will meet to revisit the thorny issue of air quality. When we looked at this subject last time - as part of our work for the Task Force Report on Transport - we concluded that, although Camden breaks various EU pollution rules, there wasn't much we could do at the borough level. But is that true? This time round we'll hear from one of the country's leading experts on air quality, Professor Frank Kelly of Kings College London, who will explain the damage that airborne pollution is doing to us. Then Simon Birkett of the Campaign for Clean Air in London will make the case for action at the Camden level.

The second half of the meeting will look at the work being done to green our housing estates and ask what more can be done. Camden's Director of Housing, Michael Scorer, will bring us up to date on his department's eco plans. Then we'll hear from a company called Biotecture which makes green or living walls. Finally the sustainable food charity Sustain will present some of the food growing projects taking place on housing estates around London.

Improving our air quality and greening our housing estates - a Sustainability Task Force meeting - 6.30pm Wed 22 Apr, Camden Town Hall (Judd St entrance).

Sometimes it seems faintly ridiculous to be discussing subjects like air quality and greening our housing estates when we probably have 5-10 years to decide whether the human race will make it through the 21st century, or when a society that has become drunk on cheap oil is about to experience the mother of all hangovers. Many experts are now saying it's too late - that we are past the tipping point, that we cannot reverse runaway climate change. I still believe, I think, I hope we have time. But time is surely running out.

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Despite the awareness raising that has been done over the last few years those who run Camden Council still don't appreciate the urgency of the situation. Most politicians see climate change merely as one of a number of competing issues. Very few understand the concept of peak oil - the idea that at some point, probably very soon, we will reach the peak of global oil production. After that, as supply falls, the price of oil will go through the roof making most of our daily lives unimaginably difficult, if not impossible.

I am writing this in an idyllic log cabin in Devon far from the hustle and bustle of London. For a few days it seemed like the perfect escape. The ideal Plan B. But the more I observe life in the countryside the more I see that it depends on cheap oil as much as we in the cities do. The huge cars that hurtle around the narrow country lanes need petrol. Farmers use fossil fuels in their tractors, their fertiliser and their pesticides. Local shops are being put out of business by supermarkets whose global supply chains depend utterly on cheap oil. Every house is filled with appliances that require more and more electricity from a national grid that is increasingly likely to break under the strain.

Some of you will have been at the G20 protests which were so violently broken up by police resulting in the death of an innocent man. I don't condone the attacks on the RBS building by an anarchistic minority, but I do think the police acted unreasonably in their treatment of the other protesters, especially those taking part in Climate Camp. For nearly four years Climate Camp has been a laudable manifestation of the right to protest peacefully. I myself have been to climate camps at Heathrow and at Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. My worry, as the consequences of climate change become ever clearer and protest against inaction by politicians becomes stronger, is that the British state will increasingly use force to crush peaceful demonstrations.

Please, if you haven't done so already, join Greenpeace, join Friends of the Earth, join the Soil Association - all organisations fighting peacefully for a greener future. Take part in Climate Camp this summer. Join Plane Stupid if you have the stamina for direct action. Become a member of your local Transition Town group, part of a community attempt to present a vision of a better future in the face of inaction by politicians.

How can Glenda Jackson still be supporting Heathrow expansion when so much that we hold dear is threatened by it? How can Boris Johnson be proposing a new airport in the Thames Estuary when emissions from aviation have the power to completely overwhelm our CO2 reduction targets? Why is Geoff Hoon still spending billions on road building and Ed Miliband countenancing the idea of more coal-fired power stations? Why is taking so long to cut the carbon out of Camden?

We're all in this together. Maybe the rich will be able to escape briefly to the islands and highlands but, like cholera in the 1840s, which led to the building of proper sewage systems, peak oil and runaway climate change will overwhelm us all eventually.

I may be wrong of course. We may have plenty of time to prepare for peak oil. We may find ingenious techno-fixes for avoiding runaway climate change. Life on earth may not be about to end. But if I and others like me are right, then shouldn't we be doing more than we're doing right now?

I remain of the opinion that individuals and politicians have the solutions to preventing runaway climate change in their hands. I believe that life after cheap oil can be better, more local, less chemical, less stressed, less materialistic, more friendly...

It's up to us.

Cllr Alexis Rowell

Chair, Camden Sustainability Task Force