Capitalism takes our breath away

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New Delhi smog. Pic: Anindya Chattopadhyay

John Sinha investigates how the motor industry continues to poison us.

On describing the environmental conditions facing the working class in the newly industrialised cities of the Lancashire mill towns in the 1840s, Friedrich Engels noted, “And if life in large cities is, in itself, injurious to health, how great must be the harmful influence of an abnormal atmosphere in the working-people’s quarters, where, as we have seen, everything combines to poison the air.” Air pollution has been a fact of working class urban life since the industrial revolution. What was true for the Lancashire mill towns is true of New Delhi in India or Xingtai in China today. The only difference is our better understanding of the health effects of pollution and the new sources of air pollution that have arisen since Engels wrote his ground-breaking 1845 study, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Recent medical research has linked air pollution to delayed cognitive development, stunted growth and reduced lung capacity in children. It is also linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Its role in conditions such as asthma and a whole host of heart and lung diseases has been known to medicine for decades.

The famous Clean Air Act of 1956 restricted the use of polluting high sulphur coal in fireplaces. Change was also driven by the discovery of natural gas from the North Sea in the early 1960s, which led to the rapid replacement of coal by gas heating. But new sources of air pollution have emerged, with the expansion of motor transport and air travel. Practically anybody anywhere in the world who lives in a major city breathes polluted air. In cities such as London, over 50 percent of this pollution can be attributed to road traffic.

Global killer

Air pollution has become a global killer. According to the WHO statistics nine people in ten breathe polluted air, and it kills 7 million a year, accounting for 24 percent of all stroke deaths and 43 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

Accurate figures for the number of deaths caused by air pollution are difficult to calculate, but a 2016 Royal College of Physicians report for the UK estimates it shortens the life of about 40,000 people per year. And the unborn are also harmed — the pollution the mother breathes travels through the placenta.

Air pollution should be seen as part of the wider ecological crisis of capitalism. It is the burning of fossil fuels which is driving both climate chaos, species extinction and contributing to this public health crisis. Regardless of the climate impacts of fossil fuels, a society in which human health and safety was paramount would have phased out fossil fuels decades ago, purely due to their health effects.

The roots of the present crisis can be traced to political decisions going back to the first decades of the postwar years. In particular, it was pressure from big oil and the motor lobby to favour private transport over public, and the internal combustion engine over alternatives based on electric power. Many British cities operated electric trolley buses and trams for much of the 20th century. These were phased out in the 1950s in favour of diesel vehicles. Trams and trolley buses weren’t phased out because they were less reliable or less economical — the reasons were ideological. Cities such as Los Angeles were designed for the tram, but opposition from the motor lobby resulted in the tramlines being ripped up and converted into urban highways. The postwar years also saw the growth of sprawling, car-dependent suburbs all over the US.

In the UK urban planners were busy designing road schemes that would rip up the heart of cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow and Leeds, making way for inner-city motorways. In the 1960s the Beeching axe fell on many rural rail lines, making these areas car-dependent. Decisions such as these were sold to the public as “economic progress” and replicated all over the world, from Sao Paolo to Jakarta to Mexico City. One consequence of these policies was to lock in car dependency, and therefore also air pollution, for a large portion of the working class in the industrialised countries.

The latest episode in this air pollution crisis is the jump in polluting emissions caused chiefly by the switch to diesel that has occurred across Europe in the past 20 years. Diesel engines emit far more nitrous oxide than petrol engines. Nitrous oxide reacts in the sunlight with other pollutants to create a whole host of other toxic pollutants such as ozone. These pollutants are known for exacerbating conditions such as asthma. But that’s not all. Diesel engines are also responsible for the emission of carcinogenic microscopic particles of soot, known as PM10s and PM2.5s. While filters can remove some of the PM10s in the latest well-maintained vehicles, there is no way of trapping nitrous oxide, nor can the filters remove all the soot particles.

So what explains the switch to diesel, and the failure to address the attendant problems? At the national level, it can be traced to decisions made by the Labour government of the noughties. Deputy prime minister and transport supremo John Prescott had an ambitious plan to encourage a “modal shift” towards public transport, cycling and walking. But this attempt at joined-up government did not survive first contact with the motor lobby. In 2001 the then chancellor, Gordon Brown, ignoring health advice and wishing to placate the motor lobby following the fuel protests of September 2000, introduced tax changes that favoured diesel. This decision led to a four-fold increase in the number of diesel cars on Britain’s roads. Historically diesel was taxed more heavily than petrol. Ironically the lower taxation for diesel was justified on the grounds of reducing carbon emissions (diesel engines have greater thermal efficiency compared to petrol, that translates to lower operating costs for road hauliers). Even the shift towards electric cars was delayed.

Motor lobby

At the international level this crisis exposes the myth that the EU is an effective environmental regulator. Its leading institutions, the European Commission and the European Council, have played their role in creating the current pollution crisis in Europe. It was the Commission that caved in to the powerful motor lobby in Brussels and encouraged the switch to diesel. And it has actively colluded with the motor manufacturing lobby ever since to delay and water down emission standards for vehicles. The Commission had been warned in 2011 by its own scientists that diesel motor vehicles were massively exceeding emissions limits, but took no action. It took the US Environmental Protection Agency to reveal the extent of the cheating by Volkswagen when it released its own test results in 2015.

In 2013 German chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure from the German car industry in an election year, lobbied UK prime minister David Cameron, the French president Francois Hollande and the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, who was at that time holding the presidency of the European Council of the EU, to water down vehicle efficiency standards in order to protect Germany’s lucrative luxury car sector. These proposed standards were the fruits of years of campaigning by environmental NGOs; the fact they could be undone by a couple of phone calls reveals how the back-room deals of the EU undermine effective regulation.

In London we saw a familiar pattern of evasion and deceit from Boris Johnson. As Tory mayor of London in 2012, he suppressed a report that revealed schools in the poorest parts of London were the most adversely affected by air pollution. Air pollution also reveals the extent of environmental racism in Britain. Boroughs such as Newham and Brent and parts of the North and South Circular roads in London are areas with large black populations; they also have some of the worst air pollution in the capital. A parliamentary report also found Johnson’s officials artificially skewing the results on kerbside pollution monitors by tampering with the sensors.

The current government has exacerbated the crisis. In June 2016 it decided to axe roadside spot checks on vehicle emissions by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. So commercial operators now have no incentive to get faulty engines fixed. And on three separate occasions the UK government has been taken to court for breaches of UK and EU air pollution laws. It has lost in each case. Its response has been to load the responsibility of tackling the problem onto under-resourced local authorities which lack the legal powers to make the changes needed and the resources to enforce current regulations.

The story of why and how big oil and the motor lobby killed of the electrical car has become part of environmentalist folklore. Who killed the electric car? is the title of a famous American documentary which recounted the lengths the US car industry would go to sabotage this technology. Sales of electric cars are now increasing — though this shift could have taken place 20 years ago had the system allowed it. But are electric cars the solution to air pollution — as many consumer groups and some environmentalists have advocated?

Fossil capital

Capitalism is, in certain respects, a very conservative system. It will resist any regulation or innovation which threatens its profits. A big part of what explains this conservatism is the enduring hegemony of fossil capital. The internal combustion engine was the dominant general-purpose machine of the 20th century. It remains so in the 21st century. The petrol engine was invented 1875, the diesel over a decade later. The car and its engine remain essentially the same as the day the first Model T Ford rolled off the production line in 1908.

What capital has chosen to revolutionise is the way the car and the internal combustion engine are manufactured, not the underlying technology itself; car production lines are some of the most automated in the world. Rather than replace the internal combustion engine with an entirely new source of motive power, it has chosen to refine existing technologies and replace components such as glow plugs and carburettors with computer-controlled fuel systems. The modern car engine is an interesting combination of the oldest and the latest technologies. Car companies have invested billions of dollars in research and development and new production lines — especially for diesel engines — over the past decade. Car engines are lighter, cleaner and more energy efficient than ever.

But this has not led to decreasing pollution from motor vehicles. Why? Because these benefits are negated by the ever-greater volume of motor traffic and by the increasing sales of heavy (and therefore thirsty) SUVs. Motor industry capital wants to recoup the cost of some of this investment. A rapid switch to electric threatens this investment. Furthermore, the entire supply chains of the car industry are geared towards the petrol or diesel engine. Creating new supply chains requires finding new sources of raw materials. Electric vehicles require lithium and cobalt for their batteries and “rare earth” metals for their high power motor magnets. Mining these metals is fuelling new conflicts in places such as the Congo. Nevertheless, the switch to electric is gathering pace, led by increasing regulations and consumer pressure.

Systematic cheating by the car industry and uncertainty about the prospect of tougher regulations has led to a collapse in sales of diesel cars. This year Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Honda have announced plant closures and job losses totalling thousands. These redundancies have been concentrated in factories specialising in diesel vehicles, at a time when production of electric vehicles is being expanded. What has been the unions’ response? Rather than condemning the cheating, short-sightedness and foot dragging they have simply regurgitated the bosses’ line and condemned the “demonisation of diesel”, as a Unite spokesperson put it.

But the position of the Unite bureaucracy is contradictory. According to its website, “Exposure to diesel fumes at work can cause cancer and even kill you!” and it asks its members to fill out an exhaust emissions register. This lack of “joined up thinking” is no coincidence; it is replicated throughout society, government and the media. It is the way the capitalist class naturally thinks and acts. Problems are only addressed when they reach a crisis point; their root causes never addressed and managed only in a piecemeal manner.

This way of compartmentalising problems and tackling them in isolation from each other is part of the irrationality of capitalism. It stems from the logic of the system, to subordinate everything to the capitalist imperative of accumulation and competition, or as Marx put it, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”. And so people’s innate capacity for “joined up thinking” finds itself in conflict with capitalism.

The solution to the current air pollution crisis is collective not individual. It cannot rely on replacing one form of private transport, the motor car with a fuel tank, with another form that relies on batteries, bringing with it its own environmental problems. Cars are particularly unsuited as a means of mass transport over short distances, as is the case in urban areas. Rather the solution lies in free public transport powered by renewable energy; the expansion of cycling; and the greening of our cities by reducing the amount of road space given over to private vehicles. Such a plan is covered in detail by the One Million Climate Jobs report produced by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trades Union Group. This would require changes to planning and housing so that people don’t need to commute long distances. This in turns requires the abolition of the market from major sectors of the urban economy from transport to housing. In short, if we want liveable and breathable cities we need democratic socialist planning.

Yet the whole direction of government policy is pushing in the opposite direction. Its policies are pushing more people off public transport and into cars. Chancellor Philip Hammond announced billions for new road schemes, while transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the scrapping of electrification schemes that would have improved air quality by removing diesel trains. Public transport has not recovered from the privatisation of municipal bus services by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which means most people outside London have to rely on a fragmented, unreliable and expensive service. While the cost of driving a car has gone down over the past decade, the cost of rail and bus fares has gone up. According to an RAC survey, motorists are more reliant on their cars compared to a year ago, with 25 percent of respondents giving as a reason the rising costs and deteriorating quality of public transport.

Tangible effects

Given the immediate and tangible effects of air pollution on people’s health, especially when compared to climate change, it is surprising there have not been more protests. But this may begin to change. Nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013 from acute respiratory failure after battling severe asthma and seizures for years, lived just 25 metres from London’s South Circular road. Tireless campaigning from Ella’s mother Rosamund has established that the illegally high levels of air pollution she was forced to breathe caused her fatal asthma attacks. This campaign has put the question of air pollution in the spotlight in an unprecedented way.

People are willing to take to the streets if the health of their children is threatened. Climate change and air pollution are often viewed as separate issues by campaigners. But it’s time clean air campaigners and climate change activists joined forces. The cause of both is the same and they are powerful allies in the struggle for climate justice.

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