Cars queue during traffic jam on the city highway A100 at rush hour in Berlin, Germany, November 14, 2018. Picture is taken on slow shutter speed. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
London's new 'ultra low emission zone' aims to protect citizens from vehicle exhaust fumes © Reuters

London’s creation of a new clean air zone for vehicles at the heart of the city last week is an ambitious and necessary move to improve the health of citizens. As global cities such as New York gradually bring in congestion charging schemes, additional penalties for drivers polluting the atmosphere are the rational next step.

It is likely to become an influential test case for emissions penalties. Many Londoners have not yet woken up to the fact that older vehicles now cannot enter the inner city zone without paying up to £24 a day. From 2021, the clean air penalty will apply to a far larger zone of the capital, 18 times the size of the current one, and Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, could find himself facing a backlash from motorists.

The need to curb emissions to prevent premature deaths from lung disease and related conditions is undeniable. Up to 40,000 British people are estimated to die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution and research published last week suggested that air pollution, much from vehicle exhausts, causes 4m new cases of childhood asthma globally.

This is not solely a London problem: many of the world’s biggest cities face the same challenge. But the UK has a poor record in air pollution, having been condemned by UK courts for its failure to obey European laws since 2010. Responsibility has been devolved to cities, forcing places such as London and Birmingham to take action.

London’s new “ultra low emission zone” is a far-reaching public intervention, making it costly for petrol and diesel cars that do not meet new EU emissions standards to reach the city centre. Unlike the congestion charge, introduced in 2003 in daytime hours, it applies around the clock.

The new zone has already been expensive for transport companies and small businesses. Although black taxis are exempt from the emissions charge, private hire vehicles must pay it and Addison Lee, a large operator, has spent £40m on 1,200 new vehicles to comply. The fleet of 2,800 inner London buses has also been upgraded.

Higher costs will fall on many households, rather than chiefly on businesses, when the zone is expanded to a large swath of London in 2021. In effect, it will make it prohibitive for many families to drive in cars that are more than a few years old. About 40 per cent of the 100,000 vehicles that entered the congestion zone daily in March did not meet the standard.

The principle is right — emissions of chemicals and fine particulate matter have to be addressed head-on as more of the world’s population moves to cities. New York City’s planned congestion charge from 2020 is intended to help restore public transport, yet more action will be needed to curb air pollution that is estimated to cause 2,700 premature deaths a year in the city.

Governments need to find politically acceptable ways of sharing the pain of radical public health measures. The gilets jaunes protests in France have shown how resentment against fuel charges can spiral into broader direct action. Following the new charges on old vehicles, London introduces later this year a £25m scrappage scheme to help low-income motorists with old cars switch to “greener” vehicles.

But cities cannot solve the problem by themselves. Up to 30 per cent of UK air pollutants are estimated to originate from other European countries and Britain cannot escape its own clean air responsibilities to the continent. Finding an equitable way to meet the costs of clearing the world’s atmosphere is vital to achieving the undoubted benefits. No emissions zone is an island entire of itself.

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