Ultra-Low Emission Zone charges are a matter of social justice

Luke Murphy reports on the new initiative to tackle inner-city pollution

April 11, 2019 · 5 min read
Garry Knight / Flickr

The Mayor of London recently introduced the ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in the capital, a policy advocated for by IPPR. All vehicles entering the centre of London will have to pay a daily charge if they don’t meet new tighter emissions standards – though some exemptions apply. The policy is radical, controversial, but it is also necessary – here’s why.

 Thousands of Londoners die prematurely every year due to toxic air. It stunts the growth of the lungs of children; it is one of the primary causes of cancer; and it increases the risk of dementia. There are hundreds of schools in London in areas where the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NOx), a form of pollutant, exceed the legal limits. 

The biggest contributor to poor air quality in the capital are the most polluting vehicles – and the ultra-low emission zone is a radical solution. The zone is expected to reduce NOx emission by almost half according to figures from the Greater London Authority (GLA) and help clean up the quality of the capital’s air for all Londoners.

The policy is not without its critics. Some have argued that it will hit small businesses unfairly and damage London’s economy. Others have said that it will hit poorer households disproportionately because they are more likely to own an older car. Yet these criticisms are not an argument not to implement the policy, but more about how it should be done. As we argued in our report, there is always a balance to be had between the costs of those affected by the policy and the significant and deadly health impacts of air pollution. But the potential impacts cannot and should not be dismissed and the mayor of London has already responded by creating a £48 million scheme to support low-income Londoners and small businesses to scrap older vehicles.

 Furthermore, while it is essential to ensure there is support to help those on the lowest incomes who are affected, as well as small businesses, we should remember that this is an issue of social justice. After all, the most deprived Londoners are more likely to be exposed to air pollution and yet they are least likely to be responsible for the problem. In London, the most deprived Londoners are on average exposed to nearly a quarter more nitrogen dioxide pollution than the least deprived. Yet the most deprived households are much less likely to own a car.

In addition, the ULEZ will help clean up air for all Londoners but it will particularly help the most deprived. Analysis suggests that the average difference in air quality between London’s most and least deprived areas will be reduced by 70 per cent over the next decade. The number of schools in the capital exposed to illegally high levels of NOx is also expected to be reduced from 485 just a few years ago to just 5 in 2020. This is not just minor progress. The policy impact of the ULEZ, combined with other action to reduce air pollution in the capital and nationwide, could help prevent deaths and ensure that many more people live healthier and happier lives as a result.

Of course, more could and should be done both to clean up our toxic air but also to help alleviate the impacts on those who will be affected the most by air quality measures. Here there is a clear role for national government to do more. As the figures for deaths and evidence of multiple health impacts have demonstrated, air pollution is a national health crisis and should be treated as such

That’s why there needs to be a new clean air act with tough new air quality limits linked to World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines. These limits should be enforced by an independent statutory body which should be capable of holding the government to account and acting if the government is failing to tackle the issues sufficiently. Furthermore, the government should introduce a national vehicle scrappage scheme to help support small businesses and low-income drivers to either transition to low emission vehicles or to more sustainable modes of transport. And finally, there should be a greatly improved Clean Air Fund which should provide support to towns and cities acting to tackle air pollution including providing investment for cleaner forms of transport.

The need for more progress, however, shouldn’t overshadow the significance of the introduction of the ULEZ today. It is a bold but necessary policy, which in time, could be taken up by cities around the world looking to tackle the devastating impacts of toxic air.

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