Global Warning: Can Ultra Low Emission Zones combat air pollution?

Toxic air is all but inescapable today, with only 1% of humanity avoiding exposure to pollution exceeding World Health Organisation standards. Sources and sufferers are concentrated in major cities. London killed around 4,000 with its air in 2020, according to Imperial College London. How can we make the streets safe for breathing? 

Labour mayor Sadiq Khan is expanding the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ (ULEZ) from inner London – roughly half the city, within the North and South Circular roads – to all of Greater London at the end of August. Vehicles which don’t meet exhaust standards, mostly older cars which are more affordable to poorer workers, are charged £12.50 each day they operate within the zone. 

A study on ULEZ by Imperial College London found in 2021 that it “caused only small improvements in air quality in the context of a longer-term downward trend in London’s air pollution levels”. The separate, wider ‘Low Emission Zone’ cut emissions from heavy goods vehicles. Parking restrictions, traffic and the rising cost of living make car ownership harder and harder in inner London. New vehicles replace older models year on year and are built to higher environmental standards anyway. 

All these factors and others affect the trend, and interact with each other. Subtle changes that can contribute to bigger shifts, such as the psychological effect of the policies on myriad individual decisions, are almost impossible to measure directly. A report by the mayor’s office in 2023, reviewed by a professor at Imperial, did attribute more substantial impact to ULEZ itself. True, it was produced to do a political job justifying ULEZ expansion. Also true: road changes can take some time to filter down into an impactful scale of behavioural changes. 

The full truth of ULEZ’s usefulness is uncertain. What is certain is it tries to make the working class pay for the pollution crisis. Around 160,000 non-compliant cars a day pass through outer London, Transport for London estimates – expecting ULEZ expansion to lower this to 46,000. The RAC believes almost 700,000 vehicles in Greater London have a high chance of being non-compliant, let alone surrounding counties.

It’s not that outer Londoners don’t want cleaner air. Lower population density tends to mean lower average pollution, but it’s still there. A greater proportion of elderly residents also means more illness and deaths from it. The outer London response to TfL’s 2022 online consultation had an overrepresentation of residents with non-compliant cars – around half compared to TfL’s estimate of one in ten – with 70% opposing expansion. Nonetheless, 45% of them still expressed concern over air quality. But even the name ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ feels like spin. Within it, pollution so bad it’s illegal is recorded less frequently. Less appalling; hardly ‘ultra low’. This and many other traffic policies give an impression of serious environmental action without having to challenge the big profit concerns that could stop most of it at source. Their focus is the individual.

Plummeting living standards and constant economic and political crisis have rightly depressed trust in the institutions of capitalism. Each new imposition attracts extra hostility because of a general sense that working-class individuals have so little control over their destinies. Car usage, the power to travel at will, can hold an important place in the psyche for many in this context.

A related issue is the friction caused by road closure and cycle path schemes. The policies themselves can be beneficial, but Labour authorities tend to land them on areas without detailed, collective input from residents and workers. Genuine consultation based on collective community discussion and design of proposed changes to road usage, balanced with the needs of the wider region, as part of a democratic, integrated plan for transport, could eliminate most of the real and perceived problems.

The cost of upgrading is another issue. The mayor’s £110 million scrappage scheme pays a lump sum to replace non-compliant vehicles. Individuals can only apply if they claim disability or child benefits, however, and the small print says it may end up deducted from those benefits! Even then, for both individuals and small businesses, the sum on offer is less than the majority of compliant vehicles cost. It is not the fault of workers driving in London that big car and energy firms have put them in a polluting framework. Instead of charging workers ULEZ fees, give them more help to use less polluting options. The scrappage scheme is a good idea but needs to close the gaps.

You can tax and fine as much as you like but without other options workers will still have to drive. Big areas are poorly served by public transport, especially at unsocial hours, and these tend to be where many workers can afford to live. The outer London boroughs with highest car ownership are bottom-ranking in TfL’s Public Transport Accessibility Levels. Londoners already have the longest commutes in the country – averaging 297 hours a year, according TUC analysis, compared to around 200 elsewhere. Our network is not sufficient for the size and complexity of the city. 

The fact that Khan is expanding ULEZ at the same time as attacking public transport gives the lie to his claims about wanting to tackle pollution and traffic. The funding deal he accepted from central government includes reducing London bus provision by 4%. He is also coming after jobs and pensions on the tube. There are proposals to redistribute some bus mileage to outer London, but at the same time as cutting.

The whole network needs massive expansion. The existing infrastructure needs attention too. On top of bulging at the seams during rush hour, Hampstead tube station, for example, has particulate pollution levels 30 times the street above due to underinvestment in maintenance and ventilation. And to incentivise this switch, public transport should be free – as it already is in dozens of cities in other countries.

That means a fundamental change in funding model. Westminster’s insistence on London transport being overwhelmingly funded by fares is evidently unworkable, even from a capitalist perspective. No other major city has entertained the idea. Instead of fighting the unions to cut services, the Greater London Authority (GLA) should lead them in a struggle for full funding from central government. 

Commutes would also be shorter if people could live near their work. The big property developers are driving workers further and further out. A mass programme of council house building and rent controls in the private sector would reduce strain on the network. That again means leading a fight for resources – instead of trying to overcome the robbery of austerity by letting developers pay you to rob the working class even more.

Those developers are a direct cause of pollution too. A third of ‘coarse’ particulate matter in London comes from building work. Big construction firms explained to researchers at Imperial College London that they know it’s a problem, and it’s possible to invent solutions, but they won’t because of competition and profit. Major developments already go through the GLA for approval. It could insist on clean construction standards to cut city pollution, and genuine sustainability standards for finished projects to cut greenhouse emissions. It could establish its own council home building department with impeccable standards and well-paid, trade union jobs. Borough councils could do the same, and win huge public support for a campaign to get the money spent back off the government and the rich.

The mayor of London has a bigger platform than most cabinet ministers and could mobilise an unstoppable fightback in the capital. This could make the ‘ultra low emission zone’ a fact, instead of a euphemism for another tax on workers. Finally solving the problem, though, demands national and international action. Nationalising the transport, logistics, automotive, energy, housing, construction and finance industries, alongside big landlords and the land itself, as part of a democratic, socialist plan to guarantee clean air and a sustainable world for all. Taking steps towards both requires the working class to build its own mass political party, and struggle for a revolutionary socialist programme.

James Ivens