As we recover from the pandemic, major cities around the world are struggling to tackle another public health crisis – one that has been many years in the making. Around 90 per cent of people worldwide breathe polluted air every day, with air pollution claiming the lives of an estimated seven million people across the globe every year. We know that toxic air pollution is causing life-changing illnesses, such as cancer, lung disease and asthma, and potentially increasing the risk of dementia and diabetes. It’s especially dangerous for children, who are growing up with stunted lungs.
In London, traffic emissions are the biggest source of poor air quality. That’s why we introduced the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This has already made a swift and significant difference in central London. In the first ten months of operation (before the pandemic) it had already helped reduce the levels of some harmful pollutants in the zone by almost half, and up to 30 per cent in some areas outside the zone.
But the job is far from done. There are two main air pollutants of concern in London, based on their impact on human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5). And while significant progress has been made on NO2, we must go further – tens of thousands of Londoners are still breathing air that’s more polluted than the legal limits, and 99 per cent of Londoners live in areas exceeding the recommended guidelines fom the World Health Organisation (WHO), which are much tighter than the legal standards.
I also see tackling air pollution as an urgent issue of social justice. Londoners on lower incomes are more likely to live in the areas most badly affected by air pollution and least likely to own a car. The fact that 99 per cent of London does not meet WHO recommended limits adds to the growing evidence and cross-party consensus that the government needs to commit to legally binding WHO recommended targets to be achieved by 2030 through its Environment Bill, rather than consulting on new standards.
So, we will be expanding the ULEZ from 25 October this year, increasing the size of the zone so that it goes out to, but not includes, the North and South Circular roads. This will create a zone 18 times larger than the current central ULEZ.
We’ve worked hard to ensure Transport for London’s entire core bus fleet meets ULEZ standards and includes 500 electric buses and the brand-new hydrogen double-deck models that launched this month. This complements our efforts to get more Londoners cycling, walking, using public transport or investing in newer, cleaner vehicles, such as electric cars. I’m proud to say London now has the largest network of electric vehicle charging points anywhere in Europe.
Improving air quality in our cities is a necessary goal in its own right but it is also an opportunity to support the green jobs and skills the UK needs for a clean, green and fair recovery. Earlier this year, I visited an electric bus factory in Yorkshire where 50 per cent of its revenue comes from Transport for London contracts, helping to create high-quality jobs and boosting the local economy. There are similar stories across the country, including Scarborough, Falkirk and Ballymena.
It’s fantastic to see other UK cities following London’s lead. Bath’s Clean Air Zone began operation in March and Birmingham launched a similar scheme at the beginning of June this year. The evidence is clear that low-emission zones work in tackling toxic emissions, not just within the zone but also in the surrounding areas, as monitoring from the central ULEZ has shown. This means improvements are shared beyond the boundaries, rather than diverting the problem elsewhere.
The decisions we make now to tackle air pollution in our cities are a matter of life and death. It took decades before action was taken to protect children from toxic cigarette smoke. We cannot make the same mistakes by turning a blind eye to the clear evidence showing the dangers of toxic air pollution. That’s why I’m more determined than ever to continue taking bold action in London to accelerate our efforts to clean up our air, and I encourage other cities in the UK and around the world to do the same. Everyone has a right to breathe clean air – and we must not stop until this becomes a reality.
A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming Spotlight issue on greener transport after COVID – on the newsstands Friday, 16 July.
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