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London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the traffic charging scheme targeting disel and other worst polluting vehicles, is due to be significantly expanded next year as the capital steps up efforts to reduce harmful emissions and improve air quality for its inhabitants.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, who had previously committed to making the UK’s capital a zero carbon city by 2050, has now vowed to achieve this target by 2030 if re-elected. The ULEZ should play a significant part in helping London achieve this goal, although all emissions and congestion charges are currently suspended during the coronavirus pandemic.

The existing ULEZ introduced in April 2019 covers the central London congestion charge zone. Later this year Transport for London (TfL) is due to implement tougher standards for heavier vehicles, including van and lorries over 3.5 tonnes, and buses and coaches over 5 tonnes, in the existing Low Emission Zone (LEZ), which covers the Greater London Authority region stretching as far as the M25 in some directions.

Then in October 2021, the ULEZ is due to expand up to but not including the North and South Circular Roads. Under the ULEZ scheme, vehicles that do not meet emissions standards must pay a daily charge to travel within the zone (see opposite for more details).

After just 11 months 13,500 fewer cars now enter the ULEZ on a daily basis and there’s been a 40% reduction in older, more polluting vehicles. This has resulted in a 36% reduction of roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions and contributed to tackling climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions linked to road transport by 4%.​

“This is a good first step,” said Sotiris Vardoulakis, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the Australian National University. “But the road is still long — air pollution from vehicles is strongly linked with mortality and we need to take all necessary measures to ensure London's air comes to compliance with legal limits.”

Air pollution contributes to up to 9,400 extra deaths per year in the capital, according to research by King’s College London. The premature deaths can be attributed to two key pollutants produced by petrol and diesel engines: fine particulates, known as PM2.5s, and NO2, an air pollutant linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular harm and increased risk of premature death. Diesel vehicles alone produce nearly 40% of all London’s NO2 emissions.

It is essential to take action on the capital’s dirty air, Deputy Mayor for Environment, Shirley Rodrigues, told the Evening Standard before the coronavirus pandemic. “The ULEZ is the centrepiece of our plans to clean up London’s air — the boldest plans of any city on the planet — and it is exceeding expectations, reducing harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution by almost a third in the central London zone.”

Sarah Vero, 36, a communications professional, decided to get rid of her car in August and embraced cycling after driving for almost 12 years. Speaking before the coronavirus outbreak, she explained that she viewed the scheme as “a good thing that might have inconvenienced a lot of people”.

“[It is] the beginning of the changes we will all have to make to tackle climate change. We need to all start thinking about our environmental footprint”. Sarah said she was urging her mother to swap her current diesel car for something greener. “My mum’s diesel car is affected by the ULEZ so I am trying to persuade her to get an electric.”

Ryan Saban, 31, a director of operations at a technology business, has switched to an electric car for economic reasons. Last month he explained that he usually drives from Hendon where he lives into central London.

“I need the car to go to meetings in residential areas where public transport is not convenient. With my diesel car I was paying silly money for fuel and road tax, around £180 per month, whereas now I only pay around £20 per month to re-charge my electric car,” he said.

ULEZ: What you need to know

What area does the ULEZ cover? 

The same area as the 17-year-old Congestion Charge Zone, which is roughly Zone 1 of the Underground Tube map. On October 25, 2021 the ULEZ is set to be expanded to incorporate the area up to but not including the North and South Circular Roads. How do I know if I am entering the ULEZ zone? There are signs throughout central London indicating where the ULEZ zone starts and ends, but no barriers or toll booths. Cameras read number plates and background checks establish if the vehicle meets the ULEZ standards.

When does it operate? 

It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for every day of the year (except Christmas Day). What is the ULEZ daily penalty charge? The charge is £12.50 for cars (petrol: registered pre- 2006; diesel: pre2016), motorcycles (pre- 2008) and vans (weighing up to 3.5 tonnes — petrol: pre- 2006; diesel: pre- 2017). The charge increases to £100 per day for heavier vehicles, including lorries (over 3.5 tonnes) and buses/ coaches (over 5 tonnes)

What’s the difference between the Congestion Charge and the ULEZ charge? 

You will need to pay an £11.50 daily charge if you drive within the Congestion Charge zone between 07:00-18:00, Monday to Friday. If your vehicle also does not meet the ULEZ standards, you must also pay the ULEZ charge (that’s a combined sum of £24 for cars).

Where does the money go from the new air pollution charge? 

Any money received from the Ultra Low Emission Zone will be reinvested into improving the transport network — including its roads, cycleways, buses and Tube — and making London’s air cleaner.

However, to really tackle London’s toxic air, in the longterm we need to move towards fewer, not just cleaner, cars on our roads, notes Silviya Barrett, research manager at the Centre for London.

“While evidence shows the ULEZ is effective at reducing NO2, it is not reducing the finer PM2.5 particles that all vehicles, including fully electric ones, produce from tyre and road wear,” she said. “This is why the Mayor should look to introduce a road user charging scheme.”

Instead of charging drivers a flat daily rate, the Centre for London suggests charging drivers based on the impact of specific journeys, considering the length, road surface damage, economic costs and environmental damage.

But the tougher LEZ measures planned for bigger vehicles later this year, including a £100 per day fee for lorries, are already a source of concern for hauliers. “This scheme takes no account of the great strides our industry has made since 2013 — we have reduced our emissions by 60% by switching to greener vehicles,” said Chris Ashley, Head of Policy of Environment & Regulation at the Road Haulage Association.

“Some of our smaller operators have a profit of £60 per week, so switching to greener vehicles is very difficult for them as the older vehicles are worthless assets.”

The rise of online shopping, even before the pandemic, had translated into an increased usage of delivery vans and other light goods vehicles (LGVs) in London. “There should be some form of subsidising for smaller operators to help them switch to greener vehicles,” said senior campaigner at Greenpeace Areeba Hamid. Environmental campaigners believe tougher measures are essential.

“We need to make some pretty bold changes in the way we run our cities if we want to achieve carbon neutrality,” said Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air in London.

Hamid says: “With air pollution there is no one silver bullet, there are so many things cities need to take into consideration. London seems to be moving in the right direction, but we need to act bigger and faster. Once the scheme is expanded in the North Circular it will be the largest such scheme in the world.

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