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Why London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone is vital for the health of the capital

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Air pollution across the UK continues to threaten people’s health, and children in London breathe some of the dirtiest air in the country. Research by King’s College London suggests the lung capacity of youngsters living in the capital has been reduced by breathing in pollution.

These children have an increased risk of diseases such as asthma and bronchitis and face the prospect of developing further health problems as adults from having smaller lung capacity. Some studies even suggest that dirty air can affect their ability to learn. This is not something that our children should have to put up with as an inevitable part of living in a modern global city.

That is why the Mayor of London is absolutely right to introduce the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) on 8 April to protect the health of everyone who lives and works in the capital. Those with the older, more polluting vehicles will need to either replace or retrofit their vehicles or pay a daily charge to drive into the zone.

This is important because the government states that where legal limits for nitrogen dioxide are broken, around 80% of the problem comes from road transport – and diesel vehicles are the main source.

Two million people in London are living with illegal air pollution, according to the most recent data. But according to King’s College, policies such as the ULEZ would mean London’s air could be within legal pollution limits by 2025.

The ULEZ will also help protect children. Recent figures showed nearly 500 schools in London were exposed to illegally high pollution. That will figure to drop to five next year and down to zero by 2025 if the Mayor delivers on his promises.

The poorest are often those worst affected by air pollution and are least likely to own a car. It is therefore welcome that evidence suggests the ULEZ will reduce the health inequalities caused by air pollution in London.

As it stands, the ULEZ isn’t perfect. It needs to be expanded as soon as possible to cover the whole of Greater London. Children in Croydon and Brent have the same right as children in central London to breathe clean air. But the ULEZ will be an important step to a cleaner, healthier city.

Let’s not forget this is a consumer scandal as well as a public health crisis. The Mayor is bringing in a scrappage scheme to help people on low incomes and small businesses but he can’t do it all on his own. You’d think the government would be doing everything it could to put a system in place to help people with a speedy switch from dirty diesel vehicles to cleaner forms of transport. But it’s not.

It is not even bothering to make the polluter pay, which in this case is the car manufacturers, who have successfully lobbied against effective pollution controls and gamed weak regulations to produce cars which passed laboratory tests but emit dangerously high amounts of pollution on the road. We all remember the VW scandal.

Having helped get us into this mess, it is high time they helped get us out of it. In Germany, automakers have committed a quarter of a billion euros to a clean air fund. In the UK? Not a single penny.

The government must stand up for ordinary car drivers by committing to a programme of support to help people and businesses switch to cleaner forms of transport, including retrofits for those on low incomes so they don’t need to buy a new vehicle, as is happening in Germany.

ClientEarth has defeated the government three times in the High Court over the inadequacy of its national action plans. We still don’t have an adequate national plan. But with the ULEZ, London does have an ambitious plan to help people breathe cleaner air and to become a healthier city.

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Robert Dimov