Cleaning up London’s air by the implementing the ULEZ will slow down man-made global warming and all the negative effects this has on the health, well-being and future of Londoners, other life, and ultimately our planet.
Second only to Brexit, one of the most contentious current issues for Londoners has to be the implementation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, the latest initiative to tackle London’s air pollution.
Its introduction was brought forward when results of a Queen Mary London University study suggested the impact of the original Low Emission Zone (LEZ), which covers most of Greater London and was introduced in 2008 to reduce pollution from the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles driving in the Capital, had fallen short of expectations and hadn’t reduced air pollution enough.
The inauguration of the additional Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), which affects most road traffic but within the smaller central London congestion charging zone, on 8 April has seen some notable resistance. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the union that represents private hire drivers, even sought a judicial review of the Mayor’s decision.
The ULEZ, replaced the T-Charge (officially known as the Emissions Surcharge), which was introduced in October 2017. The T-Charge covered the same central London area as the Congestion Charge, but means that drivers of older — often diesel and fully petrol-run vehicles — pay a second fee to drive in central London.
The ULEZ does exactly the same. Drivers of more polluting vehicles have to pay more to drive within the Congestion Charging Zone. There are some differences. The ULEZ is in operation all day every day and it is £2.50 more expensive than the T-Charge was, meaning that drivers of vehicles not meeting minimum EU standards for emissions now pay combined Congestion and ULEZ charges of £24.00.
While some question the validity of such levies, the Congestion Charge, Low Emission Zone, T-Charge and ULEZ have all been introduced for a very good reason: To improve London’s air.
Every Londoner in the capital lives in an area exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for the most dangerous toxic particles, and according to the Mayor’s Office some 9,000 Londoners die prematurely every year because of polluted air.
UK wide, estimates of premature deaths due to air pollution range from 28,000 to 40,000 people each year, and it also contributes to over 6 million sick days, 20,000 hospital admissions due to respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and an estimated social cost of £22.6 billion a year.
The impact of air pollution on the health of those who are unable to avoid it is fast becoming a cause for significant concern. Governments, health professionals, human rights workers, lawyers, parents and teachers — both in the UK and across the globe — are waking up to the fact that it is one of this century’s biggest health threats.
It is irrefutable that road transport is a major contributor to air pollution.
In 2016, road transport emissions were the third largest source of particulate air pollution in the UK.
Around half of emissions from road transport are nitrogen oxides (NOx). One of these that is particularly harmful to health is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and road transport emissions in the UK account for 34% of NO2. Gas boilers in buildings are also a source of nitrogen oxides but it is near to busy roads that NO2 levels are highest, and it is the strong and increasing evidence of the harmful impact of NO2 on health that drove the earlier implementation of the ULEZ.
Recent studies, including one by a research team at King’s College London, have found evidence that nitrogen dioxide causes irritation and inflammation of airways and lungs, resulting in coughs, shortness of breath, and bronchitis. Sadly it’s often the poorest, most infirm and those at each end of life who suffer the most from many challenges to health, and air pollution is no exception to this. NO2 is particularly dangerous to people already compromised by respiratory conditions such as asthma, to older people and especially to children.
Nevertheless, a report by Living Streets estimates that more than 2,000 nurseries and schools in England and Wales are within 150 metres of a road with illegal levels of air pollution. In London alone, about 360 primary schools are thought to be in areas exceeding safe legal pollution levels, with half coming from cars, buses and lorries.
By implementing tariffs such as the ULEZ aimed at reducing air pollution, London is leading the way in the UK.
Transport for London expects harmful nitrogen oxide emissions in central London to fall by 45%, and 40% in the surrounding areas, after just the first year of the ULEZ, and there are plans to expand it to the north and south circular roads by 2050 which is expected to further reduce NOx pollution across London by 20%. Following in London’s example, there are proposals to introduce pollution charges in Bath, Birmingham and Leeds in 2020.
Greatest global health opportunity
While there are some for whom the personal financial burden of the Mayor’s ULEZ obscures their view or appreciation of its overall benefits, it will nevertheless vastly improve the quality of the air Londoners have to breathe and therefore improve — and even save — lives blighted by the effects of air pollution. Contributing to improved air quality for millions of people across London its impact on air quality will be especially beneficial to children and young people, people with respiratory problems and older people.
Let’s not forget too that nitrogen oxides are also greenhouse gases, which are key drivers of climate change. Transport is now considered to be the largest greenhouse gas emitter of the UK economy, accounting for 28% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2017.
The link between traffic-related air pollution and climate change is one that the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change constantly underlines, and one that formed the basis of our 2018 report Moving Beyond the Air Quality Crisis.
Acting on climate change though is one of the greatest opportunities to improve health across the UK and the world. The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded that ‘responding to climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century’.
Many of the drivers of climate change such as the burning of fossil fuels, over-consumption and poorly designed cities also cause ill health by adding to air pollution, promoting unhealthy diets and supporting physical inactivity.
By responding to climate change, we simultaneously address these modern day health challenges, by benefiting from a lifestyle that is more akin with planetary health.
Dr Claire McLoughlin
UK Health Alliance on Climate Change