That’s not what I said, say scientists

According to SCIENTISTS, “pollution is not improved by c-charge.”  (“Improved”? These scientists are so sloppy with their language.)

Journalists all over the city are this week reporting that the congestion charge has not reduced air pollution problems in central London, and that’s a fact, proven by science.  (As far as I know, the CCharge was never about air pollution — the clue’s in the name. But it’s potentially an interesting thing to look at all the same.  I can invent in my head plausible hypotheses for why it would improve air quality, and why it wouldn’t, but both would be useless without evidence either way.)

Unfortunately, I’m having a little trouble finding out who these so-called scientists quoted as the source for the claim are.  I asked scientists on twitter, but they couldn’t remember making the statement.

What I can easily find is a set of documents (none of them making the claim) reviewing work that explores a potential link between the CCharge and air pollution.  The documents are not new research published as peer reviewed articles in a scientific journal.  They are a “research report” — a King’s College academic’s review of what we know about the CCharge and air pollution — coupled with commentary and a press release.  The documents are all commissioned and published by the “Health Effects Institute“,

a nonprofit corporation chartered in 1980 as an independent research organization to provide high-quality, impartial, and relevant science on the health effects of air pollution. Typically, HEI receives half of its core funds from the US Environmental Protection Agency and half from the worldwide motor vehicle industry.

And that’s fine.  If the content is good, it doesn’t matter who funded it or where it was published.  I’m merely establishing exactly who is saying what.  The exact people are:

  • Professor Frank Kelly, an environmental health researcher specialising in air pollution, who (as leader of an independent group of scientists) wrote the comprehensive research report reviewing the evidence.
  • HEI’s Health Review Committee, who wrote a short commentary on Kelly’s research report.
  • HEI’s press office, who wrote the press release, which is the only thing that most journalists read.

The main line of research reviewed by Kelly looked at roadside and background levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and small particulates (PM10).  The data compared the change (if any) in these pollutants at locations within the CCharge zone from a few years before implementation to a few years after implementation.  It did the same for control locations in London but outside of the CCharge zone, to account for any unrelated trends in air pollution.

Kelly’s report concluded that there was no evidence of a CCharge effect on roadside levels of NOx; a complicated effect on background levels of NOx (whereby one type was marginally reduced and another type increased, especially near the boundary of the zone); but a marginal reduction in carbon monoxide and a reduction in particulates becoming more pronounced the closer one gets to the CCharge zone.  So the overall conclusion is that there is a small amount of evidence to indicate that the CCharge has made a small reduction to air pollution (the exact opposite of the claim attributed to “scientists” in the headlines).  However, the data was extremely limited — in some cases to single data points — and Kelly’s report doesn’t put much weight on any of the conclusions.

Even where there is sufficient data, Kelly’s report indicates that there are limitations to what this kind of data can say about the CCharge effects.  The CCharge zone is very small, he points out, and our atmosphere somewhat fluid: the air in London blows around and mixes, so even with sufficient data, this study design is not an optimal way to answer questions about the CCharge.* **

All of these limitations in study design and data quantity are reflected in the Health Review Committee’s short commentary on the report:

Ultimately, the Review Committee concluded that the investigators, despite their considerable effort to study the impact of the London CCS, were unable to demonstrate a clear effect of the CCS either on individual air pollutant concentrations or on the oxidative potential of PM10. The investigators’ conclusion that the primary and exploratory analyses collectively indicate a weak effect of the CCS on air quality should be viewed cautiously. The results were not always consistent and the uncertainties surrounding them were not always clearly presented, making it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.

Which is to say: the research so far isn’t really capable of answering any questions satisfactorily.  While the evidence is for a small improvement in air quality thanks to the CCharge, none of the evidence is very good.  They go on to make the academic’s favourite conclusion: more research is necessary.

That’s right, this is a 121 page research review with associated commentary which simply concludes that the existing data is insufficient to tell us anything useful at all.  That’s no criticism of Kelly or the HEI.  They set out to review the evidence; the evidence just happens to be severely limited.

The Health Effects Institute decided to press release this.  “Study finds little evidence of air quality improvements from London congestion charging scheme,” the press release screams in bold caps.  “Pollution not improved by C-Charge,” says Londonist. Can you spot the difference between the HEI press release and the Londonist headline?

There is an old saying that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.***  It’s a classic source of bad science and bad journalism, and in this case it nicely sums up what is wrong with the Londonist piece.  A review which actually found very weak evidence that the CCharge improved air quality is covered as a study which found hard proof of the exact opposite.

* Indeed, Boris Johnson would like to blame all of the city’s problems on clouds blowing in from the continent rather than the motor vehicles that account for most of it.

** I could add to this limitation the fact that the CCharge was not merely meant to cut car use within the zone: it was meant to fund a massive increase in bus frequencies, subsidise fares, and generally make buses and trains more inviting throughout London.  The effect of the CCharge on road traffic throughout the capital is complex, so it’s questionable whether the “control” sites can be said to be unaffected by the intervention.

*** Before someone points it out, yes I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but in this case the saying applies nicely.

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2 responses to “That’s not what I said, say scientists

  1. Andy in Germany

    Well, isn’t that what we usually do? If in doubt, blame the French. Or the Germans. Or Europe generally, what the heck…

  2. Why is it that politicians never seem able to accept that they have to take responsibility and provide leadership? Blaming someone else for a problem will not solve it where the cause is local. The EU rules on air pollution are there because it is a trans-boundary issue, and London is being fined for breaching the limits as the prevailing wind is generally from the South West, which cause a great problem for countries on the mainland. However, maybe asking Boris Johnson to take responsibility and provide leadership to too much to ask.

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