Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash
It is exactly ten years since the death of nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah. She was the first person in the world to have the cause of death defined as air pollution. It happened in London, writes Philip Bushill-Matthews.
The European Environment Agency in its 2021 report claimed that overall in 2018 air pollution had contributed to more than 400,000 deaths within the EU. Perhaps surprisingly the biggest EU polluters are Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, where the main contributors are heavy industry and domestic wood-burning for domestic use. However, according to the European Commission 20% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions come from road transport and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) rather than carbon dioxide (CO2), hence its recent proposals for all new city buses to be emission-free by 2030, and for trucks having to reduce emissions by 90% by 2040. Not everyone supports this: instead of welcoming the proposals, Green politicians said they send the wrong signals to vehicle manufacturers because they do not go far enough.
Addressing polluting vehicle emissions directly is only part of the solution: the other part is addressing those who drive polluting vehicles. Sweden introduced the first Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Europe nearly 30 years ago in 1996, soon to be followed by cities in Germany, the Netherlands and north Italy and later other cities across the EU – although each often has slightly different requirements.
London has had the unenviable position of having the worst air quality of any city in the UK and worse than most cities in Europe. The first LEZ was introduced in February 2008 by Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone. It was extended into an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London in April 2019 under current Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. Originally it covered some 40,000 cars a day together with 19,000 vans, 2000 HGVs and 700 coaches. Cars which were non-compliant to Euro 3 standards (essentially pre-2007) were charged £12.50 per day, and buses, coaches and lorries non-compliant with Euro 6 standards would pay £100 per day.
Interestingly ULEZ was actually proposed and planned for by Khan’s predecessor as mayor, a certain Boris Johnson. At the time Boris proudly announced that ‘Londoners and visitors to deserve to breathe air of the highest possible quality, not splutter on a smog of poisonous fumes belching from the exhausts of buses and lorries.’ His spokeswoman defended the idea of phasing in the programme slowly, adding ‘Improving London’s air quality is an urgent challenge which affects the health and well-being of every Londoner, and is something the Mayor takes extremely seriously. His world first Ultra Low Emission Zone is at the heart of the most radical package of measures happening anywhere on the planet to address the issue.’ Splendid soundbites, as usual, but no sense of urgency about its implementation despite the urgency of the problem.
The London Assembly soon voted to speed things up, announcing that London boroughs, the London Health Commission, and the Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians had all called for the ULEZ to be strengthened with earlier implementation, wider coverage, stricter standards and stronger incentives. ‘Financial costs to a fraction of drivers must be weighed against the health benefits to those same drivers, plus a much larger population of others, who are exposed to air pollution in central London and beyond,’ said Assembly members. In a further blow to Boris, the Environment Committee urged Transport for London not to exempt London’s new diesel/hybrid Routemaster buses, known as Boris buses, which were even more polluting than other London buses.
In the last few days Mayor Sadiq Khan has taken this earlier advice from the Assembly on board and announced that the ULEZ zone will be widened to cover all London boroughs this August. Always keen to grab a headline Boris Johnson immediately branded Khan’s plan as a mad, leftie tax simply designed to raise money before using the opportunity to re-present the history of his own limited record in a more positive light.
Brushing this fake news aside Khan immediately retorted: ‘Johnson was the mayor who took no action 10 years ago when he was given a report that showed that there were more than 400 schools in areas where the air was unlawful, some of the poorest parts of the country, and he hid that report away. So we’ll take no lectures from a former prime minister, the former mayor, who ignored the science and ignored the facts.’
Nationally Labour is promising to introduce legislation to make clean air quality guaranteed for all if it wins the next General Election. Meanwhile Conservative councils are taking Khan to court on widening London’s ultra-low emission zone for moving too fast.
It would be highly helpful if future emissions from Boris Johnson would themselves become ultra-low. That would really clear the air.
The Author, Philip Bushill-Matthews, is Former Leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament.