This post is by Varya Clark, co-founder of the Climate Acceptance Studios.
Today, the London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expands dramatically. It will be eighteen times the size of the previous ULEZ, stretching all the way from the North to the South Circular roads. As Auto Express says: “If you’re unfamiliar with London, that’s most of it.”
The campaign for expansion has focused mostly on air pollution. For example, it is regularly cited that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which, over time, can cause chronic lung disease, are almost twice the legal limit in London. It is estimated that, without bold steps like the ULEZ, it would take almost two centuries for London to bring these down to the legal threshold.
The approval rating of the policy – 51 per cent of Londoners support expansion and 33 per cent oppose it – suggests there is some level of consent for the sweeping changes society faces in response to the climate emergency, as well as air pollution.
Air pollution relates to health and climate issues
Even a decade ago, London’s road pricing controversies revolved much more around tension between congestion, the impact on the local economy and the tax burden on drivers. Reducing emissions was a more contentious policy objective. Instead, campaigners and then-London mayor, Boris Johnson argued that cars with lower CO2 emissions should not be exempt from the congestion charge because lowering emissions wasn’t the point of the policy and central London would once more become clogged, this time with low emission vehicles.
Then the penny began to drop on modern air pollution which, unlike 20th century smogs which led to the 1952 Clean Air Act, is almost invisible. In 2013, nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah died from a severe asthma attack. She lived near the South Circular and, after a long battle by her family, a landmark coroner’s report named air pollution alongside asthma as the cause of her death.
After Dieselgate erupted in 2015, parents and health professionals joined the fight against toxic air. Doctors against Diesel launched in 2016 and Mums for Lungs formed in 2017.
Awareness grew of just how deadly air pollution can be. It kills up to 36,000 people a year in the UK. It causes respiratory disease, severe asthma, cancer, and dementia. When pregnant women breathe toxic air it can cause premature birth, and harm a neonate’s lungs and heart. Evidence is mounting of links between air pollution and mental illness, and it has been confirmed that exposure before contracting Covid has increased the chance of being hospitalised with the illness.
Health inequalities and climate justice dimensions of air pollution are another powerful part of the story. You are more likely to live in a polluted area if you are from the BAME community or poor. It is often these same people who do not own cars and are least responsible for the problem.
It’s no surprise that the ULEZ is welcomed by most
Now 68 per cent of Londoners worry about children breathing dirty air in the capital, rising to 81 per cent for parents with children under 18. It is no surprise that the expanded ULEZ has been welcomed.
Cars’ CO2 emissions have been mentioned far less around this ULEZ debate, even though it is the bigger threat overall. But tackling air pollution is something that shows save lives today, unlike the less easy to attribute and long term impacts of climate disruption. But air pollution and climate change are linked. They are both caused by burning fossil fuels. By focusing on the tangible issue of air pollution, campaigns are also helping to shift perceptions and policy on climate. Health professionals around the world, mobilising to fight the climate crisis, are also putting air quality in the vanguard of their messages.
‘Ride for their Lives’ is an 800km bicycle ride by children’s hospital staff and health leaders from London to COP26 in Glasgow. On arrival, it will hand over a letter to world leaders from 45 million global health professionals outlining the many and inseparable links between climate change and health. And air pollution is the first bullet point in the letter.
The riders will be accompanied by Pollution Drift, a mobile exhibition of artist Michael Pinsky’s ‘Pollution Pods’. These simulate air quality in some of the most polluted cities in the world to give people a visceral and unforgettable experience of just how severe the problem is.
Ride for their Lives and Pollution Drift were brought together by us at the Climate Acceptance Studios. Our slogan is ‘everything we do is to inspire action’. We bring together artists and experts, culture and science, to catalyse acceptance, the precursor of action. And we’ve found that air pollution is one of the best places to start. Michael Pinsky puts it well: “The air pollution debate is a back door to the climate change argument”.
The expanded ULEZ will have impacts. It will affect those Londoners that can afford to have a car but who are not wealthy enough to replace it for a compliant model. Cutting public transport costs could help solve this problem.
The ULEZ and its expansion will not only improve the health of Londoners (it is estimated it will prevent an estimated one million air pollution-related hospital emissions by 2050.), it is also a route to lower CO2 emissions. And that, if reproduced at scale everywhere, will help everyone in the world.