Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

How low can they go? Cities are taking action to reduce air pollution and save lives

Air pollution is a bigger killer in Europe than obesity or alcohol: nearly half a million Europeans die each year from its effects.

Particulate matter (a complex mixture of extremely small dust particles and liquid droplets) and nitrogen dioxide (an invisible, but foul smelling gas) are particularly harmful to health.  As the New Scientist has explained:

“…nitrogen dioxide lowers birthweight, stunts lung growth in children and increases the risk of respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Particulate pollutants like soot cause a wider range of problems, including lung cancer.”

Motor vehicles are the main source of these emissions in urban areas. For this reason, European Union regulations introduced in 2010 set down that nitrogen oxide should average no more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre over a year. These limits are regularly breached. By the end of January this year, London had reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. Scientists say that even these limits are unsafe: the 30,000 deaths each year attributed to particulate pollution are due to exposure levels below the legal limit.

Getting into the zone

Many local authorities have been trying to tackle the issue by getting the most polluting vehicles out of their city centres.  As Traffic Technology International has noted:

“From Athens to Aberdeen, and from London to Ljubljana, there is an eclectic smorgasbord of initiatives with over 200 low emission zones (LEZ) around Europe excluding more polluting vehicles, and some cities employing road-user charging to deter vehicles from entering.”

In the UK, Glasgow is set to become Scotland’s first low emissions zone, while Oxford could become the world’s first zero emissions zone, which would exclude all non-electric vehicles from the city centre by 2035.

T Time in London

London has adopted especially ambitious goals to clean up the capital’s air. As of October 2017, older vehicles driving in London between 7am and 6pm have needed either to meet the minimum toxic emission standards (Euro 4/IV for both petrol and diesel vehicles and Euro 3 for motorised tricycles and quadricycles) or to pay an extra daily charge of £10.00 (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge).

Air quality campaigners have welcomed this “T Charge”, but not everyone is happy. The Federation of Small Businesses has voiced concern that the charge will have a negative impact on small and micro-businesses that are already struggling with high property, employment and logistics costs. Shaun Bailey, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly, has described the T Charge – and the mayor’s plan to bring forward to 2019 the launch of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) – as “vanity projects” that will have little effect on air quality.

National demands and local plans

London’s T Charge is one way of tackling air pollution, but there are other methods, such as retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel and supporting cyclists. Some UK cities are already taking action, while in Germany and Belgium, even more radical ideas are being mooted.

Last summer, the UK government set out its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The document made it clear that local authorities have a leading role to play in achieving improvements in air quality.

By the end of this month, local authorities were expected to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue, with final plans to be submitted by December. The government promised support for councils, including a £255m Implementation Fund to help them prepare and deliver their plans, and the opportunity to bid for additional money from a Clean Air Fund.

It was hoped that these measures would lower the poisonous emissions. However, last month the High Court ruled that the government’s approach to tackling pollution was not sufficient, and ordered urgent changes. Even if the subsequent plan is accepted, many feel that the only sure way to solve the problem is to eliminate traffic from our cities. Others counter that this will damage the economy.

The battle of Britain’s air quality has only just begun.


Our previous articles on air quality include:

Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality:

Google’s driverless car may succeed where Sinclair failed

by James Carson

Readers old enough to remember the Sinclair C5 might have experienced a déjà vu moment at the news that Google is developing a driverless car. As with the C5 scepticism seemed to surround the story, with followers of the Financial Times Twitterfeed giving full vent to their doubts:

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