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Toxic Toby
Photograph: Alan Schaller

Five leftfield ways that London is addressing air pollution

From a politically active teddy bear to cars that clean the air as they drive, the capital is buzzing with clever Earth-conscious initiatives helping us breathe easier

By Chris Waywell. Brought to you by Microsoft
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It’s estimated that more than 9,000 Londoners die earlier than they should every year as a result of conditions associated with long-term air pollution. It’s a massive problem in the capital: in 2017, our city exceeded its yearly pollution quota within the first week of January. London is far more polluted than New York or Madrid, with levels in some areas approaching those seen in Beijing and Mumbai. But before we properly join the ranks of the world’s dystopic smog-choked megalopolises, a range of initiatives is bringing some leftfield technologies to bear on the problem, helping us all breathe a bit easier.

Find out more about what's next for London with our Future Cities series.

Toxic Toby
Toxic Toby
Photograph: Supplied

Toxic Toby

An idea from clean-air campaigners BreezoMeter, Toxic Toby is an animated teddy bear attached to lampposts or traffic lights on some of London’s most congested roads. From time to time, he bends his head, raises a paw and (quite realistically) coughs. Every time he does this, it means that a sensor inside him has recorded dangerous levels of air pollution. At the same time, he tweets this dismal info to the local MP, reminding them of the problem. Toxic Toby coughs quite a lot. He’s a subtly shocking visual reminder of invisible pollution, and that it affects the most vulnerable Londoners, especially small children.

Hyundai Nexo
Hyundai Nexo
Photograph: Andrew Porter Photography

The pollution-eating car

According to a report by researchers from the universities of Oxford and Bath, every car and van in London costs the NHS £8,000 in medical care for pollution-related conditions. That figure doubles if the vehicle is diesel. There’s hope, though. Car giant Hyundai has created an SUV that doesn’t just emit water and heat, it actually filters the air as it drives along. In a recent study conducted with University College London, the Hyundai Nexo travelled around some of the capital’s most polluted streets and filtered more than 25kg of air an hour. So, it’s worth doing your Theory Test after all…

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Ultra Low Emission Zone
Ultra Low Emission Zone
Transport for London

The ultra-low emission zone/zero emission zones

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is in the process of creating the world’s first Ultra-Low Emission Zone in the capital. Due to launch in April 2019, the ‘Ulez’ (as surely no one will call it) will cover the same area as the Congestion Charge, with tough emission standards for all petrol and diesel vehicles. But wait! There are also Zero Emission Zones in the (oil) pipeline. The much more snappily titled ‘Zez’ are proposed for 2025, and will ban all emissions from specific areas of the City of London and the West End. Oxford Street will remain a Christmas-shopping nightmare, of course, but its air will taste like champagne!

Chiswick Living Wall
Chiswick Living Wall
Photograph: Supplied

Living walls in schools

Compared to a lot of cities, London is very green; more than 40 percent of it is open space. This is good: plants and trees help purify the air. This year, though, two neighbouring west London schools went one better, starting a crowdfunding campaign to create ‘living walls’ of pollution-busting plants in their grounds. The move came after one of the schools cut outdoor playtime after concerns about pollution levels. Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged £32,000 if the schools could raise the rest of the costs.

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Airlabs
Airlabs
Photograph: Airlabs

Anti-pollution bus stops

One of the best ways for us all to reduce pollution is to use public transport. The irony, though, is that waiting for tubes, trains and buses puts us in some of the most polluted spaces in the city. A 2017 study found that travelling on the Underground exposed commuters to more pollutants than a journey by bus or car, while waiting for buses beside congested roads is also high risk. This latter issue prompted a company called Airlabs to trial bus shelters with built-in air-cleaning technology in central London. Typical: you wait ages for a pollution-busting initiative, then five come along at once!

Discover what's next for London

Explore our Future Cities series

Things to do

What will London's skyline look like in 20 years' time? How will we respond to climate change, a rapidly increasing population and air pollution? Will we all be eating insects in the near future? In this series, we’re delving deeper into the future we know is coming, and investigating the developments that could shift the way we exist in the coming decades.

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