The Invisible Killer and London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone: Too little and too late?

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John R. Bryson
Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography
University of Birmingham


On Monday 8 April 2019, London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was activated to cover central London. From 25 October 2021, this will be extended to the area within the North and South Circular Roads.

Currently, any petrol or diesel vehicle driven within central London must meet new tighter emissions standards or pay a daily charge. Non-complaint vehicles must pay £12.50 for entering the area each day, in addition to the congestion charge.

Air pollution is a recurrent but intensifying problem for residents of both small and large towns and cities. There is a real danger that air pollution is only considered to be an issue in major agglomerations like London, Birmingham or Coventry rather than for places like Worcester, Evesham or Litchfield.

The ULEZ is an important step towards reducing air pollution in London, but it is only one step of what must be a much more co-ordinated approach. Three important points need to be considered.

First, London’s ULEZ is not the most restrictive or effective. Madrid introduced a zero emissions zone in November 2018 that is a similar size to London’s. To enter the Madrid zone, drivers must obtain authorisation, and this is only granted to electric vehicles and other similar ‘zero’ emission vehicles. Residents living within this zone have exemptions permitting them to continue to use their existing vehicles until replacement. The Mayor of London only has the power to introduce vehicle charging but not to ban the most polluting vehicles.

Second, the causes of air pollution are not just localised within a city but are transboundary. London and the South East are heavily connected to air flows from Europe and across the Atlantic. Particulate pollutants can remain in the air for over a week and can travel extremely long distances. Great Britain contributes to the quality of the air in Paris and elsewhere across Europe but benefits from the dominant westerly air streams. Part of London’s air pollution is generated by other towns, cities, countries but also from ammonia that is produced by farming and in the UK specifically from poultry, cattle manure and slurry.

Third, the ULEZ is an important political statement which, recognises that air pollution is a killer as well as resulting in long-term health problems. Air pollution restricts the development of children’s lungs placing them at risk of lifelong breathing disorders.  In addition, research is beginning to identify impacts on cognition and learning. Air pollution is also a major, but too often unacknowledged contributor to reductions in productivity. Reduced performance at work, including sick leave and air pollutant related-illness, are major problems impacting on citizen welfare and on the performance of the UK economy.

Measuring the impacts of the ULEZ is complex as variations in weather conditions impact on air quality. In addition, older vehicles are continually been replaced. Therefore, any evaluation of the ULEZ’s impacts must differentiate between vehicles that would have been replaced and those that have been replaced in response to the introduction of the ULEZ.

Overall, the ULEZ is a welcome development, but it is too little, too late. Many hundreds of thousands of people living and working in London will continue to experience the longer-term impacts of polluted air. Air pollution is a complex transboundary problem. Any solution must also address the multiple causes of air pollution and also the transboundary nature of the problem. The ULEZ is one element of what must be a must more complex transboundary solution.

For Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) there is much to learn from London and Madrid. It is important that air pollution is considered to be one of the most important challenges facing the WMCA. The WMCA must innovate to reduce air pollution and its negative impacts. To assist in this process, the NERC funded WM-AIR project led by the University of Birmingham, is beginning to translate best practice science in to appropriate policy solutions.

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