How different they were.
City centres in the 1980s: vehicles parked in front of old churches; long traffic lines perennially stuck at some traffic light; cars perched on cobbled pavements.
Retro postcards still offering a visual memory of those times have no smell, but it’s easy to imagine what the air was like: heavy, octane-loaded, petrol grey.
In recent decades, the introduction of low emission zones has done a lion’s share for the environment by banning the most polluting vehicles from city centres.
With transport being the main cause of air pollution in cities, low emission zones are a potent tool to curb toxic gases in city centre areas; they are widely applied in Europe, as capitals and cities strive to limit traffic to as many vehicles as possible.
This week, London has just raised that bar: the English capital has expanded its ‘ultra-low emission zone’ well beyond the central district boundaries to an area 18 times larger than before.
The new scheme now covers 380 square kilometres or a quarter of the city and – according to London officials – is the first in Europe by size.
Only vehicles meeting stringent environmental standards can circulate inside this zone. All others will need to pay £12.50 (€14.8) a day.
This latest measure is part of the capital’s three-tier emission reduction system in the run-up to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. The new ultra-low emission zone restrictions add to London’s low emission zone (that applys to heavy vehicles such as trucks, buses and vans) and to the congestion charge area (imposed on all vehicles riding in the city centre).
“I am incredibly proud that expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone today will clean up London’s toxic air pollution and help tackle the global climate emergency by reducing emissions,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan in a press release.
The measure will bring twin benefits to human health and “cleaner air to almost four million more Londoners”, Khan told British media. “This expansion would lead to all of London seeing a reduction of 30% of nitrogen dioxide,” the mayor added.
Toxic gas emissions are responsible for a long list of diseases, from asthma to cancer to heart attack, with nitrogen dioxide one of the main culprits. High concentrations of this gas can be found in congested and busy urban areas, according to the London Air Quality Network (LAQN).
Nitrogen dioxide is considered among the most damaging air pollutants by the European Environment Agency (EEA), together with particular matter and ground-level ozone. In 2016 alone, 400,000 people died prematurely because of air pollution, according to the EEA.
“Toxic air is an invisible killer that stunts children’s lungs and causes thousands of premature deaths in our capital. Doing nothing is not an option,” Khan tweeted this week.
We’ve expanded the ULEZ to bring cleaner air to almost 4 million more Londoners. Toxic air is an invisible killer that stunts children’s lungs and causes thousands of premature deaths in our capital. Doing nothing is not an option.
— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) October 25, 2021
Although car exhausts alone are not responsible for cities’ toxic air – the EEA’s top pollutants list also includes indoor gas stoves and kerosene heaters – reducing vehicle emissions by limiting their access to cities remains key to protecting residents’ health.
Data from elsewhere in Europe proves that the scheme is effective. In Brussels, for example, a year after the introduction of the low emission zone in 2018, the city recorded an 11.5% reduction of particulate matter and an 11% drop of nitrogen oxide (a combination of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide gases).