At the end of the nineteenth century London was the biggest and most economically successful city in the world. The downside of continuous and almost unregulated growth was damage caused to the environment. Although the extent and seriousness of air and water pollution in London was recognised, little was done in the early twentieth century to deal with it effectively.
London still relied almost entirely on coal as its main energy source in the early 1900s. Huge quantities arrived in the city every week by rail and barge, to be burnt as fuel everywhere from domestic grates to factory boiler rooms. Coal-fired ships on the Thames and steam railway locomotives contributed more smoke to the industrial atmosphere. Even with the introduction of electric trams and trains, the power was originally generated using steam turbines at giant new coal fired power stations, which also belched fumes into the city air.
Victorian London had become notorious for its thick 'pea-souper' winter fogs which combined with the smoke from coal fires to create noxious 'smog'. This regularly reduced visibility in the streets almost to zero. Pollution from industries to the west of the city was blown across London by the prevailing south-westerly winds. Itdamaged plants, buildings, clothes, furnishings and paintings, but above all Londoners' health. As late as 1952 a particularly bad London smog in December resulted in an estimated 4000 premature deaths.
There was little real improvement until the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, which finally curbed smoke emissions. More than 90% of London was designated as a 'smokeless zone'. By this time industry and commerce had switched largely from coal to oil and gas, trains were diesel or electric powered, and domestic central heating using oil, gas and electricity had replaced open coal fires in the home.
London eventually resolved the problem of smoke pollution, but still faced with the less visible, but potentially more dangerous mix of air pollutants resulting from vehicle emissions. By the end of the century road transport was the major source of harmful emissions such as carbon dioxide, which not only damage London's environment but contribute to global warming and climate change.
Other types of environmental pollution also changed across the century, sometimes for better, often for worse. The water quality of the river Thames improved overall as more efficient sewage treatment plants were introduced and anti-pollution laws were tightened. Open land and green spaces within Greater London acquired legal protection through the designation of conservation areas.
Noise pollution emerged as a new problem as technology brought increased levels of noise in the streets, the air and the home. Gramophones, hi-fi sound systems, television and radio brought new levels of noise pollution to London's neighbourhoods and new 'nusisance' laws to control it. Those who lived around Heathrow Airport began to campaign against the noise pollution they suffered day and night.
Quantities of domestic waste increased, along with street litter and illegal dumping of refuse. By the end of the century every London household was producing a colosaal one tonne of domestic waste a year, most of which found its way to landfill sites around the capital. The idea of recycling was slow to take hold in London, but by the end of the century most Londoners were beginning to realise that 'green issues' had to be taken seriously if London of the future was to be a sustainable, healthy and liveable city.
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