The ultra low emission zone expansion will cement London’s legacy as a clean air leader

This post is by Oliver Lord, head of policy and campaigns for Environmental Defense Fund Europe.

The pandemic has revealed the consequences of health inequity. We must learn from this by enabling everyone to use greener transport and ensuring we all have clean air to breathe, regardless of who we are and where we live.

The planned October expansion of London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), which charges drivers of highly polluting vehicles, has the potential to help save more lives. Forecast to slash harmful emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by a third, the move will clean the air for all Londoners, and especially the 3.8 million residents living in the zone. Crucially, expanding the ULEZ will send a global message that clean air and city living can go together.

Award winning action by London
London’s air pollution has long been notorious – the coal-induced smog of 1952 killed thousands – but so has our capital’s ability to innovate. The introduction of the current ULEZ in 2019, which covers 21km2 and was six years in development, was a daring response to concerns that Londoners are breathing in illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 is a particularly harmful constituent of NOx that can lead to lung and heart disease.

Our analysis of Breathe London monitoring sites after the ULEZ start date found a 25 per cent drop in NO2 levels near roads inside the zone and an average eight per cent drop across London. Signs also indicate the ULEZ has encouraged people to switch to cleaner cars, or opt to walk, cycle or use public transport. As a result, the ULEZ was the only scheme in Europe to win a prestigious Bloomberg Philanthropies award in 2019.

The city still exceeds WHO guidelines
While the existing ULEZ was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, 14 per cent of roads across the capital still exceed legal limits for NO2. And vast swathes of London do not meet World Health Organization guidelines for fine particulate matter, of which vehicle engines, tyre and brake wear are a dominant local source.

Many citizens who live on highly polluted main roads don’t own cars but are at greater than average risk from diseases caused by poor air quality.

And evidence also shows that it is marginalised Londoners who pay the biggest price from the city’s toxic air. The most deprived Londoners are over six times more likely to live in areas with higher pollution than the least deprived. Levels of NO2 in areas where people of Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds are most likely to live are on average 24-31 per cent higher than areas where white people are most likely to live.

A London coroner’s ruling last year over the death of nine year old Ella Kissi Debrah is thought to be the world’s first case of air pollution being listed as a direct cause of death. But estimates indicate 4,000 people still die prematurely each year in London alone from toxic air and that represents a fraction of the overall health burden. Meanwhile, there is emerging evidence that links air pollution with the most severe impacts of Covid-19.

The problem goes beyond London
It’s not just Londoners who should benefit from cleaner air. Three times in three years the government has lost court cases to ClientEarth over illegal and harmful levels of air pollution across England. And, in March 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union found the government to have “systematically” failed their legal duties on this matter.

The ULEZ is part of the government’s wider clean air zone framework, which sets out principles for the operation of similar schemes across England. Despite this, almost two years on from the start of the ULEZ roll-out, there has been only one other clean air zone in the UK. Hats off to Bath City Council for their new scheme.

The everlasting delays to zones being introduced elsewhere is a wasted opportunity. They should be part of a comprehensive package of actions, including improving public transport and introducing new walking and cycling routes, that will transform city environments.

The current ULEZ has demonstrated that taking such action can help urban areas to lower pollution, reduce health inequalities and enhance life for all. EDF Europe’s ongoing analysis of vehicle trip data shows how thousands of polluting vehicles driven in the ULEZ are also driven elsewhere in the UK, revealing that these zones are nationally significant. So why has there been such inertia?

London won’t tolerate toxic air any more
The ULEZ extension, planned to cover around 360km2, will be similar in size to the combined cities of Liverpool and Bristol. From 25 October 2021, drivers of all types of heavily polluting vehicles, including motorbikes, cars and vans, will have to pay to drive in the wider zone. By rewarding cleaner transport, this will finally set London on a track to meeting legal NO2 limits. And marginalised communities will be some of the greatest beneficiaries.

Expansion of the capital’s ULEZ later this year will send a clear message that London and the UK is no longer prepared to tolerate dangerous levels of air pollution and health inequities, setting a precedent for cities at home and around the world.

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