Half a century ago, a lethal haze of smoke and fog, otherwise known as the Great Smog of 1952, covered London and killed as many as 12,000 people. More recently, in 2013, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died at the hands of air pollution. “[Ella] was the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as the cause of her death,” says 17-year old co-founder of the organization Choked Up and Ella’s friend, Anjali Raman-Middleton. But London’s toxic air, a longstanding problem associated with 9,000 premature deaths per year, is more than a public health and environmental issue.
“It’s also a social justice issue,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan told WRI, “with the poorest Londoners living in the areas most badly affected by toxic air.”
The most impoverished Londoners, who are often non-white, are exposed to levels of air pollution equivalent to smoking 150 cigarettes a year, according to the British Heart Foundation. And they are not alone in facing toxic air pollution in their daily lives. These residents belong to the 90% of the world’s population exposed to polluted air, which causes around 7 million premature deaths each year from stroke, lung cancer, heart disease and chronic and acute respiratory diseases.
Most of London’s air pollution is from road transport, including cars, buses and taxis. When these vehicles combust fossil fuels, they release toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide.
Over the last two decades, London’s mayors have steadily worked to turn the city’s pollution trajectory around. Recently, Mayor Sadiq Khan, elected in 2016, has pushed to implement some of the most ambitious policies to reduce air pollution across the city. The latest measure, the “Ultra Low Emission Zone” (ULEZ) is a finalist for the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities, which spotlights innovative approaches to simultaneously tackling climate change and urban inequality. Currently covering all of central London, the ULEZ requires drivers to meet strict vehicle emissions standards or pay a daily charge, encouraging residents and businesses to switch from heavily polluting vehicles to cleaner modes of transport.
Saving Lives Through Cleaner Air
The ULEZ sits within a larger policy agenda to make London a more equitable place to live while tackling the climate emergency. Launched in 2019, the ULEZ represents the culmination of almost two decades of ambitious policies aimed at taxing air pollution and reducing traffic congestion.
Working in tandem with other policies, the ULEZ has tough greenhouse gas emissions standards that vehicles must meet when driving in the zone. Vehicles exceeding the ULEZ’s emission standards pay between £12.50-100 ($17.50-140) to drive into the 21 square kilometers (roughly 8 square miles) zone, which covers central London. A camera system ensures vehicles are charged correctly. The ULEZ will expand the zone to London’s main circular roads, an area of 360 square kilometers (roughly 140 square miles) in October 2021.
Central to the execution of the ULEZ was the gradual and complementary nature of preceding policies implemented by previous administrations. While originally focused solely on combatting traffic congestion, charges expanded incrementally to incorporate emissions reduction measures for large vehicles and then all vehicles, with increasingly strict standards.
In addition to complementing previous policies, the ULEZ is also embedded in London’s broader, more comprehensive package of clean mobility measures. These measures include upgrading the public bus fleet, electrifying taxis, building cycling infrastructure, and closing roads during school pick-up and drop-off times. As a result, inner London’s 3.2 million residents have benefited from cleaner air, higher-quality vehicle fleets and improved non-motorized infrastructure. The number of schools facing unsafe pollution levels has dropped from 455 in 2016 to 14 in 2019, and protected space for cycling has almost tripled. A study conducted 10 months after the introduction of the ULEZ found 49% fewer polluting vehicles were driven into central London every day — the equivalent to 44,100 vehicles — while CO2 emissions from road transport dropped 6% and NO2 concentrations dropped 44%.