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Why London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone is already controversial

Drivers of high-emission vehicles will have to cough up the cash if they want to travel within London’s newly expanded Ultra-Low Emission Zone. With the area including circular roads and numerous residential areas, the city’s mayor is receiving a lot of pushback from locals, business owners, and councils.

If you’ve recently moved to England’s capital or have ever visited, chances are you were shocked to find the inside of your nose was completely black the next time you blew it.

Charming, I know. But it’s true.

Londoners accept this as a not-so-great side-effect of residing in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Still, realising that this is caused by constant exposure to air pollution is a difficult pill to swallow.

Along with dust and dirt blasted about by underground trains, there are other dangerous pollutants floating around in London’s air. Three of the most concerning are fine particle matter (PM2.5 & PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which come primarily from urban transport and indoor heating.

Over time, these pollutants can trigger or worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma. In recent years, poor air quality in the capital has been directly linked to the death of at least one child – 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.

Children are especially vulnerable, but these substances are dangerous for adults too. Research conducted by the mayor’s office indicates that roughly 4,000 Londoners die prematurely every year due to the city’s poor air quality.

Hoping to prevent the situation from worsening, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan is cracking down on the use of high-emitting vehicles by expanding the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ).

Not everyone is happy about it, so let’s take a look at the pros and cons – shall we?

What is the ULEZ and how does it complicate things for drivers?

London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone has been around since 2019.

Up until now, it has required drivers of cars which fail to meet low emission standards to pay a fee when travelling within designated Congestion Zones. More specifically, inside 21 of London’s busiest and most central boroughs.

But as concerns about the dangers of high air pollution levels mount, Sadiq Khan has been moved to expand the ULEZ to all 32 London boroughs. The rule has come into effect today, January 30.

The zone now includes major circular roads and also blankets across residential areas on the outer edges of the city, for example, Kingston Upon Thames and Bromley. Drivers of non-compliant cars virtually anywhere in London will be charged £12.50 per day for doing so.

Unsurprisingly, people are fuming. Living in London was already expensive before the pandemic, before inflation, and before the cost of living crisis hit in quick succession.

Now is not exactly the best time for business owners, families – or any average earner for that matter – to invest in a new vehicle that meets the emission standards of a newly expanded ULEZ.

Those who can’t upgrade their vehicles will be burdened with a £3,000 annual fee for travelling within the zone. It’s a hefty price tag that two-thirds of residents have labelled an ‘unaffordable’ ‘cash-grab’ put in place by ‘eco-obsessed’ Sadiq Khan.

So far, 11 of the 19 London councils newly added to the ULEZ are considering legal action on behalf of their residents. It wouldn’t be surprising to see that number climb in the coming months.

The UK government is attempting to pacify residents and business owners with its largest-ever grant scheme, worth a massive £110 million. It will assist eligible individuals to scrap or trade in their old vehicles for environmentally friendly alternatives.

This all sounds rather bleak, but in the spirit of playing devil’s advocate… could there be an upside here?

An unfair rule or a necessary adaptation for a better future?

Given that I don’t drive, rely on a vehicle for work, or even have my license for that matter, I’ll admit that bias will likely influence my next argument.

But like most people concerned with London’s air pollution, ever-growing global greenhouse gas emissions, and the general state of the planet – I can’t help but feel that the move to rid our roads of high-emitting vehicles was inevitable.

Here come some stats to help paint the picture.

The transport sector currently accounts for 30 percent of global carbon emissions. At least 70 percent of these transport emissions are caused by cars, vans, lorries, buses, and other vehicles.

In London specifically, road transport is responsible for 28 percent of all carbon emissions produced by the capital. The environmental impact of vehicles was highlighted massively throughout the pandemic when London’s total CO2 emissions dropped by 59 percent during its first lockdown.

Still, it’s hard to ignore how Sadiq Khan may have got expanding the ULEZ wrong. Moving 5 million drivers away from high-emitting vehicles requires a lot of pre-planning that seems to have been overlooked.

If local residents should lean into electric vehicles (EVs), there needs to be a matched supply of electric vehicles available for sale. At the moment, the demand for EVs is higher than the supply due to still-lingering supply chain issues.

Even if there was enough stock, Londoners would need an abundance of strategically placed charging stations located across the city. But poor planning and slow implementation mean there are only 45,000 stations available across the entire UK.

Finally, for diesel truck drivers – of which there are 30,000 in London – Auto Traders reports having only 5,181 vans that meet London’s low-emission criteria available for sale.

Basically, the enforcement of the ULEZ is a hot mess. While it might force emission levels in the city down, it going to take many already-struggling businesses down with it.

Only time will tell if government grants and action will be enough to smooth over the chaos.