Back then Pope Francis wrote this about pollution in cities: ‘The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.’ (153)
This might well be the first time that pollution from cars was referred to in a papal encyclical: for some people it was one of many things they didn’t like about the pope’s letter. So many people do not want religious faith, or religious leaders like the pope, to become involved in issues of everyday life: far easier to see religion as a means of escaping from life’s problems. A distant God is much easier to believe in.
As we reflect on the Season of Creation, it would be a good time to take account of the recent extension of the “Ultra Low Emission Zone” (ULEZ) to Greater London. Moreover Catholics, because of what our Church teaches, are in a good place to consider the issues.
The pollution caused by car use, especially in cities, is relevant to our religious faith. It affects God’s creation and the ability of people to live good lives. At the very least that we need to heed the evidence about how much damage is done by pollution to people’s health, particularly the health of children or people with conditions such as asthma. There are many sources of evidence and places where people can get support – a good one would be the asthma support available through NHS London:
As with everything else connected with the damage we are doing to our planet, the issues are urgent: they demand critical self-reflection, changes in lifestyle and sacrifices.
The extension of ULEZ to outer London boroughs, such as Bromley, the borough in which I am an assistant priest, raises real challenges for people or institutions (such as the parish school) which have non-compliant vehicles and therefore may bear significant costs. But we cannot ignore the problems – and other similar problems.
There are different ways in which cities can reduce the pollution caused by vehicles. Whether this is an issue for local government, the London government or national government is a matter that can reasonably be debated, as can the extent of responsibility that should lie with individuals and institutions. How we tackle the issue can also be debated – some would say we should give more priority to public transport and others that we should charge cars but according to the extent to which they use roads rather than through the ULEZ mechanism. Many, of course, would support ULEZ as the best way to achieve the objective.
But, for Catholics, the key thing is take the issue seriously and, as in other areas, sometimes say things which people do not want to hear.
There are two virtues that are especially important here. The first is prudence. The fact that reasonable people can come to different conclusions is never an excuse for inaction. It is essential that we are guided by Church teaching and not by tabloid press campaigns and that we discern how we should approach these problems. The second virtue is courage. We need to be prepared to vote for and support policies in the political sphere as well as take action in our personal lives that might not be in our best financial interests and that may be inconvenient. Those actions and policies might also not be popular with our friends and neighbours or, if we are members of political parties or trades unions, with our colleagues in those organisations.