London currently experiences the highest health costs associated with air pollution of any city in Europe, and data shows that road transport is the single largest contributor of air pollutants in Greater London.
However, its world-leading Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is steadily helping to improve the quality of the air throughout the city centre. According to figures from Transport for London, 94% of cars now meet European Emissions Standards within ULEZ, compared to 39% in 2017 before ULEZ was introduced.
Nonetheless, ever since the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced his plan to expand the boundaries of this zone to encompass all of Greater London, he has experienced intense backlash from all sides and triggered heated debate nationwide.
So, why is the planned expansion of this zone drawing so much criticism, and what does the discussion say about the nation’s true priorities?
What is ULEZ?
The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is an area of central London where drivers must pay a tax to drive vehicles that do not meet certain emissions standards. The tax – £12.50 per day – is in effect 24 hours a day, every day of the year (except Christmas).
Updated ULEZ map shows the full area that will be covered by the charge from August next year https://t.co/OihF7tvgAj pic.twitter.com/L1jovr3aLd
— LBC (@LBC) November 25, 2022
The plan to enforce a low emissions zone in central London was first announced in 2015 by Boris Johnson, who was then the mayor of London. When it came into effect in 2019 under the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, it was the first ultra low emission zone in the world that operated 24 hours a day.
The ULEZ fee operates alongside London’s Congestion Charge, which is a £15 daily charge for driving within the Congestion Charge zone during peak times. Although the Congestion Charge operates in a much smaller section of central London than ULEZ, it applies to all vehicles within the zone regardless of emissions compliance. Find a map of the Congestion Charge zone here.
This means that operating a vehicle that doesn’t meet emissions standards in central London currently costs a total of £27.50 per day.
The European Emissions Standards, which have been in effect since 1992, are used to define ULEZ compliance.
These standards have been periodically updated since their introduction to European roads to regulate levels of the harmful compounds and substances present in exhaust emissions, specifically Nitrogen oxides (NOx), Carbon monoxide (CO), Hydrocarbons (HC), and particulate matter (PM) – microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and negatively affect our health.
In November 2022, it was confirmed that ULEZ would be expanding to encompass all of Greater London.
The current ULEZ, which was last extended in October 2021, is 380 square kilometres, covering around one quarter of London’s urban area, and contains about 4 million people. The expanded zone will encompass 1,570 square kilometres and an additional 5 million residents, the rest of Greater London’s total population of 9 million.
The government expects the ULEZ expansion to save 27,000 tonnes of carbon in outer London. It is also forecasted to further reduce air pollution by reducing nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from cars and vans in outer London by 10% and 7% respectively, and reducing PM2.5 car exhaust emissions in outer London by nearly 16%.
PM2.5 refers to the set of particulate matter, or tiny particles or droplets in the air, that are 2.5 microns or less in width, meaning they are small enough to travel deeply into the respiratory tract and pose a threat to human health
Toxic air causes the premature deaths of more than 4,000 Londoners each year. This is a serious problem I’m unwilling to ignore.
To make the ULEZ expansion easier, we’re launching the biggest ever support package to help Londoners switch to cleaner vehicles. See what’s on offer: pic.twitter.com/XMQoQVtboT
— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) January 31, 2023
There will also be a series of financial support plans to aid those who will be most affected by these changes.
For example, the scrappage scheme to which people on low income or disability benefits, eligible micro businesses (up to 10 employees), sole traders and charities with a registered address in London will all have access.
The scheme hopes to help financially aid people to upgrade to ULEZ-compliant vehicles by offering cash in exchange for scrapped vehicles.
Disabled people, who are sometimes wholly dependent on cars or vans, will also be eligible for support, in the form of an extended grace period until 2027. London-licensed taxis are exempt from ULEZ charges, but there is legislation in place that requires all newly licensed taxis to be zero emission capable (ZEC) vehicles.
All of the revenue generated by ULEZ is reinvested in London’s public transportation infrastructure, which is considered one of the largest, safest and most efficient public transport networks in the world.
However, in the past, the revenue generated by ULEZ has fallen short of the expectations of Transport for London (TfL), the local government body responsible for most of the transport network in London. This was actually due to higher than expected levels of compliance, with 92% of cars compliant with ULEZ standards in the first month.
Backlash and Controversy
That Sadiq Khan’s plan hasn’t met a warm reception would be an understatement. The choice to pursue ULEZ expansion has drawn intense political heat and backlash onto the mayor of London.
The announcement of Khan’s plan came after a public consultation found that 79% of workers in outer London and 59% of the overall number of respondents opposed the expansion of ULEZ.
Indeed, there have been allegations from the conservative party that officials from City Hall – likely a euphemism meant to refer both to Khan himself and those with whom he works closely – manipulated the consultation process after early signs indicated that the choice wouldn’t be popular.
There is serious concern among residents that the new ULEZ charge will impact poor people the most. It will be mostly low earners who live on the outskirts of London and whose cars are so old that they were manufactured before standards were imposed by modern emissions regulations.
In a time when the cost-of-living crisis is at the forefront of the national consciousness, many are rightfully wondering if now is the time to pile another financial burden on an already struggling populace.
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The criticisms of this ULEZ expansion echo the same concerns that preceded the original introduction of ULEZ in 2019 and the more recent expansion in October 2021- namely the fact that the timing is poor for another financial burden to be levied on Londoners.
Before the expansion in 2021, there were also calls for it to be delayed due to the financial toll the pandemic had taken on society.
Multiple boroughs have now called to delay this expansion, but Khan has not backed down to the increasing pressure.
This increasing pressure is partly due to the legal threats from the boroughs of Bromley, Bexley, Harrow and Hillingdon, which sent a joint pre-action protocol letter to the Mayor of London’s office and TfL on 12 January. The letter seeks further information on the lawfulness of the decision to expand London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ).
Councillor Colin Smith, Leader of Bromley Council said of the ULEZ expansion:
“The decision to blatantly ignore a significant majority opinion of Londoners who responded to TfL’s consultation exercise, based on the highly questionable, selective and incomplete findings of a research paper commissioned by TfL themselves, simply cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged.”
This refers to the fact that some studies claim that the current ULEZ has made less of a difference to the quality of air in London than the numbers which the government has cited.
One of the key ways in which boroughs are hoping to block the expansion of ULEZ is by choosing not to cooperate with the TfL’s installation of cameras on the streets, which are used to enforce the tax. Councillor Baroness O’Neill, Leader of Bexley Council, said about this:
“We refused to allow the Mayor of London to put his cameras on our street furniture before Christmas, but we understand he may have the powers to do so without our consent. We are working with other boroughs to gain further information from the Mayor to ascertain the lawfulness of his recent decisions. In this context, we are not currently engaging with TfL to progress agreements to allow works on our roads.”
Over the weekend we received a letter from #SadiqKhan telling us to stop our challenge to his #ULEZ expansion. We will protect our poorest and most vulnerable residents from Khan’s stealth tax. See #Harrow Council’s #Conservative Leader @paulosborn’s response below. pic.twitter.com/VI5TwVBm6J
— Harrow Council Conservatives (@HAConservatives) February 7, 2023
As of February 8, Havering was the latest borough to announce its refusal to cooperate with TfL installation of regulation cameras.
Even current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has urged the mayor to reconsider his plan to continue the roll out of this expansion.
Interestingly, Khan has both described the choice to expand ULEZ as one of the most difficult of his political career, whilst also denying that he is facing public backlash for the decision.
Will the ULEZ Expansion Go Ahead?
Khan has met every challenge with a simple, yet crucial rebuttal that relies on the importance of the bigger picture. To counter every objection, he frames air pollution as a black and white question of life and death.
London has the highest percentage of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution of all English regions (7.1 per cent) with an estimated 4000 deaths caused by air pollution each year.
These excess deaths and other health problems caused by air pollution come with their own heavy financial burden. One study found that London loses £10.32bn a year to the adverse health effects of air pollution.
The link between exposure to air pollution and cognitive function is becoming clearer as well. One interesting study recently demonstrated the link between air pollution and mental capacity by demonstrating that air pollution can cause chess players to make more mistakes.
Besides the net cost to society, more and more evidence is highlighting the ways in which air pollution, especially in cities, can drive division between socioeconomic classes.
A recent commentary from the World Resources Institute explores how the use of diesel or electric buses within a school district in the US can correlate with academic performance.
The parts of the United States which are the poorest also have the least amount of public money to invest in new fleets of electric school buses, so the students that come from poor backgrounds are subjected to a daily source of air pollution which their richer counterparts avoid.
This in turn affects both overall health and cognitive function, which likely affects future earning potential and, over time, can cause generational wealth divides to be perpetuated.
This example is analogous to London. Residents who live in areas with higher levels of air pollution will likely be in the poorer neighbourhoods outside of central London and they will experience more adverse health outcomes as a result of the air pollution.
This increases their disadvantage in comparison to the Londoners who already reside in areas closer to the city centre, where emissions have been reduced.
The challenge here is balancing the needs of specific people who are struggling financially right now, with the need to stave off the unnecessary hardship and increased poverty that might be faced in the future if steps to reduce emissions aren’t taken.
Khan is clearly relying on the wide array of support packages that he has introduced to lighten the burden for many.
In an ideal world, reducing air pollution across all of Greater London should allow it to become a more equitable city, where the likelihood of childhood asthma is not correlated with the borough in which you were born.
However, there is plenty of reason to be apprehensive of a plan that will effectively “tax the poor”. When all common narrative and common sense revolves around the need to tax the rich in order to reduce emissions, many are finding Khan’s plan tone deaf.
For the moment, the situation seems to be stalled. Additional boroughs are adding their voices to the call for a delay, yet Khan remains steadfast in pursuit of his vision of a cleaner and more equitable London. Whether the legal action they’ve threatened could have any effect on the rollout remains to be seen.
Only time will tell what price the people of London are willing to pay in order for their city, and its residents, to thrive in a more equitable and habitable environment.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A car and a bike in London. Featured Photo Credit: Franco Ruarte.