This week the Mayor of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) scheme was expanded across all the capital’s boroughs. Ulez – which has caused divisions within political parties as well as between them – is intended to improve London’s air quality and reduce pollution-linked disease by charging drivers of the most polluting vehicles £12.50 a day. Vehicle emissions such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter can exacerbate and contribute to asthma, lung disease, cancer and dementia, among other conditions, and ultimately lower life expectancy.
The Ulez expansion has caused Sadiq Khan, the Mayor, to be subjected to much criticism from the leader of his party, the government and from constituents. Indeed, Keir Starmer openly blamed Khan’s refusal to back down on the expansion for Labour’s loss in the recent by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, one of the areas affected. Rishi Sunak also jumped at the opportunity to make it clear that he is “on motorists’ side”.
Even though nine out of ten cars driven in outer London already meet the Ulez emissions standards, the scheme has been fraught with arguments about personal liberty, and penalising people who are already struggling with the rising cost of living.
But London is not the only major city to invest in schemes that charge drivers of polluting vehicles. Madrid, Milan, Oslo, Stockholm, Athens, Beijing and Mexico City all have equivalents to London’s low emission zone. Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, is the latest to follow suit.
Khan chairs C40 Cities, a global network of nearly 100 mayors who work together on plans to tackle climate change. Claudia López, the mayor of Bogotá and regional chair for Latin America of C40 Cities, has lauded Khan’s “science-based decisions” and cited Ulez as inspiration for Bogotá’s Urban Zones for Better Air scheme (Zuma in Spanish).
Zuma has an environmental vehicle labelling system, similar to Ulez, which classifies vehicles by their level of emissions. However, while Ulez has been rolled out across all of Greater London, López intends to take a more tailored approach to specific areas. For instance, some areas will block access to all polluting vehicles, others will allow access to freight vehicles that are part of a self-regulated programme, and others will restrict access by vehicle type or even on a timetable.
A study will be conducted of the first area that the scheme is being tested in – Bosa-Apogeo – and used to assess the economic impact of measures such as vehicle restriction on citizens. “We know that schemes such as Ulez and Zuma involve changes that impact the cost of living of citizens, so we believe that the key is the progressive and differentiated implementation of actions,” López told Spotlight over email.
The scheme also aims to go “beyond vehicle restrictions”, López says, to a wider range of measures. Areas of the city are assessed based on air quality and socioeconomic need, with the poorest and most polluted areas prioritised. Interventions are then tailored to the area, including improving road paving (which reduces emissions), creating more space for pedestrians and bicycles, increasing green spaces, and starting environmental education programmes. Restricting high-emission vehicles is then the final piece of puzzle, alongside converting polluting industries to cleaner fuels, better operational practices and newer technology.
López says that the backlash to low emission zone schemes is inevitable. “Restrictive measures will always face resistance,” she says. “Changing our habits is a priority in order for the human species to survive and thrive. As governments, we must think of the common good. Even though these measures are restrictive, they will definitely improve air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, putting the general well-being above individual comfort.”
Using forums such as C40 Cities to share best practice can enable global cooperation on climate change and inspire “collective action and co-responsibility”, she says. However, given the resistance to Ulez in London, thorough public consultation is crucial when implementing air quality schemes, as well as a more nuanced approach that considers specific communities’ socioeconomic, health and environmental needs.
“We firmly believe that Ulez is a good model to combat the air quality crisis in cities,” says López. “However, the scheme must respond to the territorial conditions of each of the cities where its implementation is contemplated, and not be replicated as a single recipe.”