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The Tunnel-Sized Hole in London’s Climate Strategy

Despite lofty green commitments, Sadiq Khan is determined to plough ahead with the Silvertown Tunnel – a multi-billion-pound road project that campaigners say will increase traffic in some of London’s most polluted areas.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan delivers a speech on his plans to tackle climate change on 23 September 2021. Credit: Leon Neal / Getty Images

As the COP26 summit rumbles on, it is perhaps difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the event has been an illustration of grandstanding hypocrisy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson encapsulated that when he insisted there were no excuses for failing to tackle the climate challenge, and then, days later, flew back from Glasgow to London via private plane rather than taking the train—apparently because of ‘time constraints’.

By contrast, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has prior to the summit been keen to set himself apart as a leader treating the matter with the utmost importance. He has argued that other leaders need to ‘walk the walk’ to avert a climate catastrophe.

Yet despite the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion in late October and the introduction of the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London—both of which aim at improving air quality—there remains an inconsistency in Khan’s new green policy for the capital. The scheduled construction of the Silvertown Tunnel project appears incompatible with his climate rhetoric.

The Silvertown Tunnel is a proposed twin-bore 1.4 kilometre road under the River Thames linking the Silvertown region to the Greenwich Peninsula, with an expected opening date of 2025 and an estimated cost of £2.2 billion. The initiative is led by Transport for London (TfL), which expects it to reduce traffic congestion and improve air pollution on some of London’s busiest roads like the Blackwall Tunnel, as well as allowing for better transport links, better connectivity, and an improvement on journey times.

TfL may not get their way, as the plan is subject to growing challenge. Leading the chorus of condemnation is the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition (SSTC) campaign group, who argue that pressing on with the tunnel will have a considerable carbon impact.

According to SSTC’s research, the construction of the tunnel alone will add 754,600 tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere, with the number only likely to increase once the tunnel is in operation—hence the argument the project will commit the city to a transport future immersed in cars, lorries, and unconscionable air pollution. This is obviously the opposite of what the climate emergency demands.

In response, TfL have argued that the combination of another river crossing in the region coupled with the introduction of tolls on both tunnels at Silvertown and Blackwall would mean no comprehensive increase in traffic and an overall improvement on air quality.

A spokesperson for the SSTC repudiates those conclusions. ‘Building the Silvertown Tunnel will add at least 15-30% more traffic and pollution on the A12/A102/A2 corridor, according to TfL’s own modelling,’ they contend. ‘They promise that they will use a combination of user charges on both Silvertown and the existing Blackwall Tunnel to remove the excess traffic caused by the scheme.

‘This is an entirely empty promise,’ the spokesperson continues. ‘There is no legal obligation in the Development Consent Order for future mayors to charge for the crossing. Charging for use of the existing free Blackwall Tunnel, while keeping crossings in the west of the city free, will certainly be very politically unappealing, given the stark inequality that it will cause between East and West London. So, it is almost certain, without any legal obligation to implement it, that mitigation will not be implemented, or will be quickly reduced or removed, and that traffic, congestion, and pollution will increase substantially across South East London.’

It’s not just campaign groups that oppose the tunnel’s creation. In an overwhelming vote at the London Labour regional conference in July, delegates resolved that there was no justification for the tunnel and called for it to be scrapped by 74% to 26%. Put simply, London’s climate target of being a zero-carbon city by 2030 would be rendered unworkable should the tunnel go ahead.

Critics maintain that there are countless viable substitutes, too. ‘There is scope for providing sustainable alternatives for many journeys. Active travel schemes which enable walking and cycling have been proven effective in reducing car use and so cutting harmful emissions,’ says Dr Rachel Aldred, Professor of Transport at University of Westminster. ‘The cost of this proposed project could better be spent on accessible, affordable, green-energy powered, and efficient public transport.’

The zero-emission buses that are expected to run through the tunnel as part of the cross-river bus links—at a rate of 37.5 per hour per direction—are welcomed by Dr Aldred, but she points out that they do not detract from the central problem of the scheme. ‘We need better bus services, but not tied to a new urban motorway which will generate more traffic and pollution.’

The impact on local communities could be fatal, too. Newham is one borough in the Silvertown region that that will be severely affected by the large number of cars and HGVs attracted to the tunnel both during its construction and after completion—unwelcome news for a borough that declared a climate emergency in 2019. Approximately 96 people die prematurely each year in the borough due to respiratory diseases caused by vehicle pollution.

Exposure to PM2.5, a harmful particulate matter, is linked to increased illness and death, and one of the main traffic sources of the toxin is exhaust emissions from vehicles. 98% of schools in London are already in areas that exceed World Health Organisation limits on the pollutant. For areas like Newham in the Silvertown region, the tunnel would likely only compound matters—hence the Mayor of Newham’s open letter to Sadiq Khan warning against the devastating health impact on residents.

Comprised of 350,000 people and more than 200 different languages and dialects, Newham is also one of the most deprived boroughs in London. After a pandemic which laid bare the interconnected relationship between deprivation and poor health, some residents see progressing with an environmentally damaging venture as illogical.

Yasmin, a resident in the borough and a critic of the tunnel, argues that the disregard for its effect on poorer communities is only a continuation of the standard treatment from most political leaders.

‘We always bear the brunt,’ she says. ‘Me and several others in the community have voiced our opposition, but it constantly falls on deaf ears. The last 18 months taught us just how important good health is. We don’t need more projects sanctioned from the top that disadvantage us and our families. We want our children to stand a chance.’

The Silvertown Tunnel programme reinforces the reality that when it comes to the climate, conflicting policies and indifference towards the concerns of the affected communities remain a mainstay. Whether it advances or not, the project serves as a reminder that the commitments of our political leaders can rarely be taken at face value. There is no light at the end of this tunnel just yet.