London air pollution activists ‘prepared to go to prison’ to force action

The protest group Stop Killing Londoners demonstrate outside City Hall on Monday to demand Sadiq Khan does more to clean up air pollution. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Group of campaigners arrested after spray painting mayor’s offices as part of a series of direct action protests over of the capital’s illegal air pollution

Air pollution protesters say they are prepared to go to prison as they step up their campaign against the poisonous air that kills tens of thousands of people in the UK each year.

A group of campaigners including pensioners and young parents, were arrested on Monday after targeting the offices of London mayor Sadiq Khan, spraying slogans on the walls calling for tougher action on air pollution.

The group – called Stop Killing Londoners – has previously brought traffic to a standstill at some of the capital’s busiest junctions in a series of direct action protests highlighting the scale of London’s air pollution crisis.

On Monday six of them were arrested and vowed to continue their protests until Khan takes more drastic action to improve the capital’s air quality.

One of the protesters arrested, Genny Scherer, 67, said: “We all pay the price for the continuing illegal levels of air pollution. It threatens all our health and environment. I do not want to go to prison but I will if that is what it takes for our politicians to sit up and take action.”

There is growing concern about the UK’s poisonous air that causes 40,000 early deaths a year. Last week an unprecedented joint inquiry by four committees of MPs described it as a “national health emergency”. In the report the super committee was scathing about the government’s clean air plans which have been judged illegal three times in the high court. The latest proposal, rejected by the high court earlier this year, was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors.

The scale of London’s air pollution crisis was laid bare last year with new figures showing that every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds global guidelines for one of the most dangerous toxic particles.

The findings, described as “sickening” by Khan, have serious health implications –especially for children – with both short- and long-term exposure to these particulates increasing the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Health experts say young people exposed to these toxic pollutants are more likely to grow up with reduced lung function and to develop asthma.

During Monday’s protest, 15 campaigners dressed in black and white striped suits spray-painted messages, calling for action to reduce air pollution, on the walls of the mayor’s office, on the South Bank.

Six of them were arrested by police and taken into custody. Campaigners say the demonstration is the first of a series which will continue in the coming week.

The campaign is calling on the mayor to commit to proposals put forward by the London Coalition for Clean Air, a network of community groups representing people across London.

Its demands include bringing forward the introduction of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone and for it to be expanded to cover the area inside the M25. It also calls on London to become “emission free by 2025” through a system of charging, and a sit-down meeting with the mayor.

Clare Bairstow, 32, a university lecturer who was arrested during Monday’s protest said: “We are simply insisting that he sits down and engages with this coalition of community groups. We will all do this again, and go to prison if necessary, until the mayor meets with community groups.”

The impact of air pollution is of growing concern globally. A separate report published on Monday found that as many as 153 million premature deaths linked to air pollution could be avoided worldwide this century if governments speed up their timetable for reducing fossil fuel emissions.

The study led by academics at Duke University predicted the number of lives that could be saved, city by city, in 154 of the world’s largest urban areas if nations agree to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperature rise to 1.5C in the near future rather than postponing the biggest emissions cuts until later, as some governments have proposed.

The mayor’s office said senior city hall officials had met the protesters twice. A spokesman added that while the mayor believed everyone has a right to protest “they must remain within the boundaries of the law”.

“He is doing all he can to clean up London’s filthy air and has laid out the boldest plans of any city in the world to tackle air pollution – including introducing the T-charge and bringing forward the ultra-low emission zone. He started tackling this problem as soon as he entered City Hall and it’s now time the Government faces up to our toxic air crisis and does more to help. Instead of blocking the capital from accessing the new national clean air fund, they should be delivering a diesel scrappage scheme to get the filthiest cars off our roads.”

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