An unexpected boon of the London Olympics – at least in Greenwich – has been its effect on road traffic. Fears of hellish gridlock, record smogs and wheezing, under-performing athletes seem to have been overblown. Drivers by and large have avoided the capital, the streets have been quiet and the air clean. Well, cleaner than usual, thanks also to fresh westerly winds that saw off the worst ozone episode in the city for six years just in time for the opening ceremony.
Another less remarked-upon relief has been the return of HMS Ocean to Greenwich apparently smoke-free. After her inappropriately sooty sojourn here in May (see Black smoke over the Thames), she seems this time to have found a less polluting power source. Hallelujah! Riverside residents can now enjoy the company of their seafaring neighbour without worrying about dirty windows, stinging eyes and asthma attacks.
Not so, the good people of Alaska. Visitors to their ‘pristine waters’ include cruise liners that, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), emit daily the same amount of sulphur dioxide as 13.1 million cars and as much soot as 1.06 million cars. All this should change as new rules will phase out the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel in US waters by 2015. This, the EPA estimate, should avoid between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths each year by 2030.
Inevitably, the rules for US waters are being contested by the cruise industry and are subject to legal challenge. The regulated route to clean air there is likely to be a choppy one. Meanwhile, back in London, we can expect things to return to their congested, noisy, smelly worst after the Olympics as the motorised hordes once again take to the roads. And it would surely be a miracle if HMS Ocean’s funnels remained smoke-free on her voyage back out to sea. But let’s hope the games has at least given us a taste for what is possible that can inspire serious action to deal with the capital’s terrible air quality.