This post was first published by Business Green.
Despite the challenges the world is now facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, one thing that’s become clear is that society has seen a glimmer of hope into what life could be like in a greener and cleaner society. Pollution levels have dramatically dropped across the world: the European Environment Agency has reported large decreases in air pollution in many of its biggest cities, NASA satellite images of China have shown a huge cut in nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels, and there have been incredible reports of some regions of India being able to see parts of the Himalayas for the first time in thirty years. As a resident of central London, there has been a marked difference: roads are quiet and empty without the backlog of traffic running along the main roads, and living under the Heathrow flight path, I no longer see and hear a plane every two minutes.
An economic stimulus which embeds green criteria
So can we keep these positive effects after the pandemic calms down? How can cities in the UK ensure the air we breathe is safer in future than it has been over the last few decades? To help the recovery, an economic stimulus which embeds green criteria will be central to this solution, to simultaneously get the country back on track and direct investment towards the low carbon industries we will need in future. As part of this, support for local action through designated clean air zones will protect urban communities.
In the UK, there are a few clean air zones already in operation, notably London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone. Over UK 60 local authorities have been considering new measures following the clean air zone framework published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT) in February this year.
Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health
But many cities that were set to follow suit, including Birmingham and Leeds, have postponed the introduction to 2021 to prevent additional pressure on local delivery services and businesses during the pandemic. This is understandable right now but there are very strong economic arguments to get the plans back on track as soon as possible. Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, causing an estimated 40,000 premature deaths ever year. A decade of inaction has meant over 65 local authorities have roads with concentrations of NOx forecast to go above the legal limits. This has impacts on economic performance, affecting both people and the natural environment the economy depends on. It is estimated that, in 2012, poor air quality had a total productivity cost of up to £2.7 billion. It has also been suggested that air pollution has been a significant factor in worsening the Covid-19 outbreak, leading to more deaths from the illness.
The success of ULEZ
Clean air zones can play a crucial role in alleviating some of these risks. Data from London’s ULEZ and its supporting scheme the T-charge has demonstrated a 97% reduction in hourly breaches of the legal limit for NOx, as well as a 13% decrease in the total number of cars entering the city. Although there is some way to go, the ULEZ has been a great success in getting London on track to meet air quality targets from an extremely challenging starting point. Modelling work by Bristol, for the implementation of its clean air zone, revealed significant co-benefits, amounting to over £150 million in economic benefits over ten years. This includes £25 million from reduced accident costs, almost £100 million due to a reduction of journey times and just under £10 million from the advantages of active travel.
The phenomenon of car-free streets has been seen across the world since the coronavirus outbreak, with urban planners making space for social distancing. Cities like Milan, Brussels and Berlin have prioritised walking and cycling to allow locals to appreciate the fresh air and quiet roads. Elements of the positive changes we’ve enjoyed during the pandemic should not be forgotten when we rebuild our society afterwards.
Making clean air zones a priority
There have been concerns about potential less positive effects of clean air zones on the local economy and small businesses. But evidence has shown that, with the right measures and careful planning, SMEs can be supported through scrappage schemes and the use of delivery hubs and freight consolidation centres. And there is clearly public appetite for the schemes, with a recent poll by YouGov revealing that over two thirds would support clean air zones.
Lockdown has shown us what a cleaner, greener life could feel like, with roads no longer dominated by private vehicles and the pleasure of cleaner air and more space to be able to walk and cycle safely. Let’s look forward to establishing a countrywide network of clean air zones as a priority so, as the economy fires up again, we can hang onto this one good change out of the crisis.