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Drivers of cars that pollute pay a fee in London's expanded ultra low emission zone


Cutting emissions is at the core of this week's climate summit in Glasgow. It's also a big issue south of Glasgow in London, where tens of thousands of drivers of heavily polluting cars must now pay a fee - $17 a day. It's part of a plan to cut air pollution and save lives. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last week, the government here dramatically expanded what it calls an ultralow-emission zone, where owners of more polluting cars - say, a 2015 diesel sedan - have to pay a daily usage charge. The zone now covers more than 140 square miles, making it one of the largest of its kind anywhere. London Mayor Sadiq Khan says the policy was inspired in part by his own experience.

SADIQ KHAN: In 2014, I ran the London Marathon. But a few months later, I started experiencing breathing issues, and I was diagnosed with adult-onset of asthma. And I then realized that one of the reasons I got asthma was because of the air in London.

LANGFITT: Air pollution contributes to at least 3,600 premature deaths annually in Greater London, according to a study by the city's Imperial College. Air quality is improving, but most people here still live in areas where pollution levels exceed World Health Organization limits. Khan says he's not using the emission zone charges to punish people who drive clunkers. He just wants to change their behavior in hopes of cutting nitrogen dioxide emissions by 30%.

KHAN: We're encouraging as many people as possible, where they can, to walk, to cycle, to use public transport; where they can't, to use vehicles that are compliant. What we do know is that the poorest Londoners are least likely to own a car, suffer the worst consequences from air pollution.

LANGFITT: Since Khan first announced plans for a low-emission zone back in February 2017, the government says there's already been an impact. In the past four years, cars meeting the new air quality standards have more than doubled. Alex Williams works with Transport for London, a government agency.

ALEX WILLIAMS: So that's great news 'cause, basically, 87% vehicles are driving cleaner vehicles.

LANGFITT: So what kind of vehicles did they sell, and what kind of vehicles did they buy?

WILLIAMS: We've had a faster shift away from diesel. Some have gone that next step to go to electric or hybrid.


LANGFITT: I was really curious to know the impact of this ultralow-emission zone on business people. So I've come today - it's a beautiful, sunny day. I'm walking through this open air market in the London borough of Hackney to talk to local vendors, and there's a guy right down here who sells carpets. His name is Abdul Alizedeh (ph).

ABDUL ALIZEDEH: I cannot afford at the moment with this business to buy a new van, which is going to cost me at least 20 grand or 25.

LANGFITT: Abdul is speaking in British pounds and says dumping his 2004 diesel van for new emission-compliant one could cost him as much as $34,000, which he says he can't afford, especially after so many months of lost business because of COVID. Abdul wants cleaner air but says the emission charges are already hurting his bottom line.

ALIZEDEH: I'm only driving, like, maybe four mile or five mile. At the same time, when they work, Daily Base is going to come to about 80 pound a week, which is a lot.

LANGFITT: How long would it take you to save up the money to get a new van that would be compliant?

ALIZEDEH: With this business? I don't know, maybe more than couple years.

LANGFITT: The World Health Organization says air pollution contributes to 7 million premature deaths around the world each year. Dr. Maria Neira runs the WHO's Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. She says cities such as London and Paris are leading the way in cutting vehicle emissions.

MARIA NEIRA: We applaud London because we think it's one of the most innovative and ambitious one, and we would like to use it as an incentive. And hopefully, we would love to create a kind of healthy competition among mayors.

LANGFITT: How are American cities doing on this issue?

NEIRA: We don't have very good examples in America. I think, culturally, the Americans have this dependence on the use of the private car. And at the same time, they consider that as a kind of individual right, so they don't want to take a bus.

LANGFITT: Today, 110,000 heavier-polluting vehicles operate in London's low-emission zone. The government expects that number to drop each month going forward.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK PRITCHARD'S "CYCLES OF 9") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.