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What We Learned from the Great Smog
Blog...What We Learned from the Great Smog

What We Learned from the Great Smog

Ecology News
What can we learn from the Great Smog of London? How do these learnings relate to our current battle against climate change and pollution?
Ecology News

In December 1952, London was shrouded in a thick, toxic fog - an event infamously referred to as the Great Smog of London. This environmental disaster, resulting from a lethal combination of cold weather, windless conditions, and smoke-like pollution, choked the city for five days. The smog was so dense that visibility plummeted to a few meters, disrupting life in the city and claiming the lives of thousands of people - as well as leaving countless more with long-term health issues.

Today, as we grapple with the growing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, the Great Smog serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of unabated industrial pollution. By looking back at this tragic event we can gain insights into how we can prevent environmental crises from occurring in the future. 

👉 What can we learn from the Great Smog of London? How do these learnings relate to our current battle against climate change and pollution?

What was the Great Smog of London?

December 5th, 1952 was a Friday like any other in the capital city of the United Kingdom. City residents rushed to work and went about their daily business, unaware of the danger growing in the air around them. 

At first, the smog wasn’t particularly dense; it possessed a dry smoky quality and didn’t seem like anything to be alarmed about. However, the situation deteriorated significantly by the time that the sun went down. In the darkness of nightfall, the smog thickened, restricting visibility within the city to only a few meters. The next day residents drew their curtains open to reveal a city shrouded in impenetrable fog. Conditions persisted for several days, before finally starting to clear on December 9th. 

What Londoners had experienced was no ordinary fog; it was a deadly mix of fog and smoke, the likes of which the city had never seen before. The impact and disruption that the smog caused were immediate and far-reaching: with visibility extending no more than a few meters, public transport ground to a halt, citizens struggled to find their way home and the smog even infiltrated indoor areas, making breathing difficult and hazardous.

As a result of this catastrophic smog, over 4,000 people were reported to have died, and countless scores suffered from breathing issues. It was even claimed that cows just outside the city were asphyxiated as a result of the polluted air.  

What is smog?

The UK is no stranger to mist and fog, but these weather conditions became much more severe after the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1760s. As factories popped up across the country and concentrated around cities such as London, the pollutants that they released into the atmosphere acted as a catalyst for fog. The tiny particles of pollution floating in the atmosphere would collect water, creating smog-like conditions.

Whereas fog is characterized as clean, white, and without an odor, smog can be distinguished from its thick, dirty yellow or brown appearance, and its foul smell. Smog is particularly harmful as the chemicals released from factories mix with the air and water, resulting in a poisonous combination of chemicals. The effects of which include skin irritation, breathing issues, and even the corrosion of materials such as the bricks used to make buildings. 

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Why was the Great Smog so harmful?

The severity of the 1952 Great Smog of London was compounded by several factors. Firstly, the cold weather in the country had led to an increased burning of coal in homes and power stations  (which was the primary heating source at the time). The coal used - particularly by households - was of low quality and high in sulfur content, contributing significantly to the smog's toxicity. Additionally, post-war industrial pollution exacerbated the situation. London was still recovering from the devastating impact of World War Two, and as a result, its industries were operating at full capacity, pumping even more emissions into the already polluted air.

Complicating matters further were the unusual weather conditions. A phenomenon known as a temperature inversion occurred, where a layer of warm air trapped the cold air and smoke close to the ground. This lack of air movement meant that the smog lingered over the city, with no way for it to escape.

👉 Learn more about the Industrial Revolution and the role it played in global warming in our article

What was the impact of the Great Smog? 

The health effects of the Great Smog were both immediate and devastating. Although 4,000 people were initially known to have died as a result, it's estimated that the Great Smog led to many more deaths than initially reported. Experts attribute around 12,000 fatalities to the event, though some modern estimates suggest that the death toll could be even higher. 

Additionally, tens of thousands of people were reported to have developed serious respiratory conditions. The smog had a particularly harmful impact on the elderly, young children, and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. 

The severity of the smog acted as a wake-up call for the UK Government and led to more awareness of the connection between air pollution and health. It set the stage for major changes in environmental policy and public health standards.

How did the UK Government respond to the Great Smog?

As the scale of the impact of the 1952 Great Smog became apparent, public and media outcry grew. This helped to push the issue of air pollution to the forefront of the nation's consciousness, leaving the UK Government with no real option but to take action. 

In response to the tragedy, the British government commissioned a series of investigations to understand the causes and consequences of the smog. These investigations laid the groundwork for legislative action, resulting in the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. 

The 1956 Act was a landmark piece of environmental legislation, laying the foundations for efforts to combat air pollution in the United Kingdom. It introduced several measures to reduce smoke pollution and domestic sources of smog. These measures included the promotion of smokeless fuels and the establishment of smoke control areas in cities where only smokeless fuels could be burned.

What was the impact of the UK’s Clean Air Acts? 

The impact of these laws on industries and households cannot be understated. Industries were required to adapt by employing cleaner technologies and fuels, and households were encouraged, often with governmental subsidies, to switch to smokeless fuels or gas and electric heating systems. In urban areas, particularly in London, the transformation was significant. The coal fires that warmed homes were gradually replaced, leading to a significant reduction in domestic smoke emissions.

The Clean Air Acts also set a precedent for environmental policy, demonstrating the government's role in managing public health crises through environmental regulation. These laws not only improved air quality in the UK but also served as a model for other countries grappling with similar issues, highlighting the integral role of policy in environmental management and public health.

👉 Discover more about pollution and its harmful effects on our blog

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What environmental lessons can be learned from the Great Smog?

The Great Smog of 1952 stands as a watershed moment in environmental history, marking a significant shift in public and governmental perception of air pollution and its broader implications. This catastrophic event ushered in a new era of environmental awareness, highlighting the critical need for concerted efforts in air quality management and environmental stewardship.

Before the smog, air pollution was often accepted as an unavoidable consequence of industrial progress and urban life. However, the devastating impact of the Great Smog of London changed this perception by revealing the devastating health consequences of unregulated emissions and the vulnerability of urban populations to environmental hazards. This led to the acknowledgment that economic development could not come at the expense of public health and environmental quality.

As a result of the Great Smog, air quality monitoring and research received a huge increase in attention and investment. The disaster underscored the importance of continuous environmental monitoring to detect and mitigate similar threats. Governments and scientific communities worldwide began to develop and deploy air quality monitoring networks, equipping cities with the tools to systematically track air pollution levels. These efforts were complemented by research into the causes, dynamics, and effects of air pollution, which not only broadened scientific understanding but also helped to inform government policy and regulation.

The evolution of environmental policy in the aftermath of the Great Smog is characterized by a more proactive and preventive stance. The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 were just the beginning. Over the years, environmental policies have evolved to include a broader range of pollutants, stricter emission standards, and more comprehensive strategies encompassing transportation, industry, and energy production. These policies have progressively transitioned from reactive measures addressing specific incidents to frameworks aimed at sustainable environmental management.

Furthermore, the Great Smog revealed crucial lessons about the interconnectedness of environmental issues. It highlighted the need for international collaboration, as air pollution is not confined by geographic boundaries. This realization paved the way for global environmental agreements and initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which aim to address transboundary air pollution and global climate change.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Great Smog of 1952 sparked a global movement toward environmental consciousness, underscoring the imperative to balance human progress with environmental sustainability. It taught us that environmental protection is not just a matter of policy but a societal responsibility, essential for the health and well-being of current and future generations.
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Impact of the Great Smog on public health and urban planning

The Great Smog of 1952 had a significant and long-lasting impact on public health and urban planning. In the years following the smog, a series of long-term health studies were initiated to understand the full extent of its impact. These studies revealed startling correlations between air pollution and respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, and overall mortality rates. They also highlighted vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions, emphasizing the need for special protections for these populations.

These findings had a significant influence on urban planning and design both in the UK and abroad. Cities began to integrate air quality considerations into their planning processes, recognizing that urban environments play a crucial role in shaping public health outcomes. This led to the development of green spaces, urban parks, and the promotion of tree planting - which help to improve air quality by filtering pollutants. Zoning laws were revised to control where industrial facilities could be developed and reduce the exposure of residential areas to harmful emissions.

Modern cities continue to implement lessons from the past, embracing innovative strategies to combat air pollution. For example, cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have invested heavily in cycling infrastructure, reducing reliance on motor vehicles and promoting healthier, more sustainable modes of transport. London now implements congestion charges and low-emission zones to control vehicle pollution in its central areas. Similarly, cities like Singapore and Tokyo have adopted smart urban planning, integrating technology and environmental design to optimize air quality and urban livability. These examples demonstrate a global shift towards urban environments that prioritize public health and sustainability. 

👉 Discover the impact of London’s Low-Emissions Zone in our article

London in the fog

The Great Smog and climate change

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the Great Smog of 1952 and the current challenges posed by climate change. Just as the smog was a culmination of unchecked industrial practices and inadequate environmental policies, today's climate crisis is similarly a result of long-term global dependence on fossil fuels and delayed environmental action. Both crises underscore the critical relationship between human activities and the environment. So, what can we learn from the Great Smog that could help us with the current climate crisis? 

Timely and decisive action

A key lesson from the Great Smog is the necessity of timely and decisive action in the face of environmental threats. The smog prompted immediate legislative responses and a re-evaluation of industrial practices, setting a precedent for how governments can and should react to environmental emergencies. 

This lesson is particularly relevant today as the world confronts the urgency of climate change. The swift policy response to the smog illustrates the potential effectiveness of government action in mitigating environmental crises.

The importance of scientific research

The Great Smog also highlighted the importance of scientific research and evidence in shaping environmental policy. The subsequent health studies and environmental monitoring initiated after the event were central to the formation of new policies. 

In the context of climate change, this approach reinforces the need for policies grounded in scientific consensus and research, ensuring that measures to combat climate change are effective and targeted.

Sustainability strategies

Cities today are at the forefront of applying these historical lessons to tackle both air pollution and climate change. Many urban centers have adopted sustainability strategies, integrating renewable energy, green infrastructure, and sustainable transportation. For example, cities like San Francisco and Stockholm have set ambitious targets for carbon neutrality, investing in renewable energy sources and energy-efficient buildings. Similarly, initiatives like C40 Cities connect global cities by sharing best practices and innovations in urban sustainability. 

Public awareness and engagement

Additionally, public awareness and community engagement - which played a significant role in the response to the Great Smog - are important when it comes to addressing climate change. Cities can foster community engagement through educational programs, participatory planning processes, and by incentivizing sustainable practices among residents and businesses.

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Round up

The Great Smog of 1952 stands as a stark reminder of the consequences of environmental neglect and the significant impact of human activities on public health and urban ecosystems. Key learnings from this disaster include the critical need for proactive environmental legislation, the importance of integrating environmental considerations into urban planning, and the value of scientific research in informing policy decisions. These lessons offer valuable guidance in the ongoing fight against climate change.

The Great Smog should serve as a reminder for policymakers, industry leaders, and individuals to prioritize environmental stewardship. The decisions we make today will shape the air quality, climate stability, and overall health of our world tomorrow. By embracing the lessons of the past we can better create a sustainable, cleaner, and healthier future.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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