Author : Snehashish Mitra

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 01, 2024

The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)—a key environmental issue tied to energy transmission and transportation—has become a major focus point in the mayoral elections.

London’s 2024 mayoral poll: Factoring the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)

Source Image: Orissa Post

On 2 May 2024, the council election took place across the United Kingdom (UK). The councils are local self-governing bodies across towns, cities, and villages in the UK. While there are different types of local authorities (such as town and county councils of mayors, assemblies, and unitary authorities), they are all clubbed under the council. Councils are responsible for critical services for the citizens, such as school, traffic, bin collection, and area/region redevelopment. They also oversee libraries, parks, local archives and shared spaces. Given the importance of councils in everyday life, council elections are important in the UK. At the same time, it is also an indicator of the general mood of the people towards the political parties and their programmes. 

The ruling party, the Conservatives (Tories), suffered a significant setback when the council election results were declared on 4 May, whereas the principal opposition, the Labour Party, registered significant gains. Even the Green Party and Liberal Democrats also gained at the expense of the Tories. Given that the general election of the UK is approaching, the election result confirms the dwindling public support for the Rishi Sunak-led Tory government. 

The ruling party, the Conservatives (Tories), suffered a significant setback when the council election results were declared on 4 May, whereas the principal opposition, the Labour Party, registered significant gains.

Even as Sadiq Khan wrested the mayoral position for the third term, a key environmental issue tied to energy transmission and transportation—the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)—became a major focus point in his re-election bid. 

What is the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London? 

London has been a major city in the Trans-Atlantic region since the 18th century. The colonial exploits of Britain also played a key role in its growth. In recent times, despite the multiple rounds of economic slowdown in the UK economy and Brexit, London has remained an aspirational city for people across the socio-economic strata, particularly among migrants from the non-European Union (EU) countries. Surveys reveal that while there was a dip in the population during COVID-19, new arrivals have brought it back to the pre-pandemic era. Managing this increasing population is a critical task for London’s governing agencies, which are pivotal to the nation’s net-zero commitment enshrined in the Environment Act 2021

The ULEZ was conceptualised to improve London’s air quality by reducing ‘most harmful vehicle exhaust pollutants by more than half’. Established through a consultative process, the ULEZ aimed to improve London’s air quality by halving emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM10) from vehicle exhausts in central London. 

ULEZ was finalised as an action measure by Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson in 2015 and was implemented from 2019 onwards in Central London during the tenure of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. Under ULEZ, the London Assembly and the UK government collectively earmarked £65 million to facilitate vehicles plying in the Central London region to comply with the new low-emission standard. This measure involves phasing out diesel vehicles and upgrading public taxis to green vehicles. Vehicles not adhering to the ULEZ emission standards are fined £12.50 daily. In August 2023, ULEZ was expanded to all the London boroughs beyond the initial area of central London. 

ULEZ was finalised as an action measure by Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson in 2015 and was implemented from 2019 onwards in Central London during the tenure of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The ULEZ has significantly improved London’s air quality as it strives to achieve the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines for air quality. The number of older polluting vehicles has fallen dramatically, with 97 percent now meeting the cleaner standards. NOx emissions have fallen by 26 percent, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions have fallen by 19 percent between 2019 and 2023. A study by the Imperial College of London reported that in 2019, Greater London witnessed the equivalent of between 3,600 to 4,100 deaths attributable to human-made PM2.5 and No2. Studies published in the journalsEnvironmental Research Letters (November 2021) and Environmental Health (July 2022) reported significant reductions in the  NOx in the ULEZ zone. The assessment report published by the Mayor of London also revealed that the number of non-compliant vehicles fell by almost 60 percent, leading to positive impacts even in the adjoining regions. 

ULEZ as an electoral issue 

Mayor Sadik Khan’s proposal for London-wide coverage of ULEZ from 29 August 2023 was opposed by the conservative opposition parties like the Tories and the Reform UK. The displeasure of stiff penalties for non-compliant private vehicle owners led to sporadic anti-ULEZ protests, including vandalism, before the mayoral poll threatening Khan’s re-election bid. Tories’ mayoral candidate, Susan Hall, pledged to revoke the ULEZ from London’s outer borough. At the same time, Reform UK’s Howard Cox pitched its revocation, stressing that humans play a minimal role in climate change. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also urged Mayor Sadiq Khan to reconsider ULEZ expansion. 

On 4 May 2024, Sadiq Khan won a comfortable victory, winning close to 44 percent of the votes. Khan’s promise of a “safer, fairer and greener” capital ensured that he retained his voter base while also securing support from the Green and Liberal Democratic Party.

On 4 May 2024, Sadiq Khan won a comfortable victory, winning close to 44 percent of the votes. Khan’s promise of a “safer, fairer and greener” capital ensured that he retained his voter base while also securing support from the Green and Liberal Democratic Party. The takeaway from this election is how the environmental questions were central to the local elections in one of the world’s most important cities. By sticking to ULEZ and expanding its ambit, Khan took a risky political gamble. ULEZ also received validation from the World Health Organisation (WHO), even though the UK's legal emission limit has yet to match the WHO guideline for the annual average limit of air pollutants. 

Lesson for other nations

The discourse around the ULEZ offers lessons for other nations in their climate action strategies. Most fast-growing cities in the Global South are grappling with issues to balance development and climate resilience measures. Urban planning must incorporate climate threats, extreme weather events, and adaptive measures while accounting for social inclusivity. Knowledge exchange between the cities of Global North and Global South could play a critical role in fostering the planet’s sustainable future. The principles for ULEZ could be examined by governing authorities in emerging nations to establish low-emission-based transport regime. This could bolster the existing public transport in cities (for example, BEST in Mumbai) or initiate the development of sustainable public transport infrastructure where it is not operational yet. Governments can leverage transnational urban platforms such as the C40 Cities (a global network of nearly 100 mayors of the world’s leading cities to tackle climate challenges) for policy dialogue among city leaders. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is a chair of C40, who has prioritised addressing the twin dangers of air pollution and climate change through the ULEZ. This is an opportunity for Indian cities that are part of the C40 network (New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Jaipur) to have a deeper understanding of a successful ULEZ model and lead by example to come up with a regional framework of tacking urban emissions which the other towns and cities across India can follow.


Snehashish Mitra was a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Author

Snehashish Mitra

Snehashish Mitra

Snehashish was an Urban Studies Fellow at ORF Mumbai. His research focus is on issues of urban housing, environmental justice, borderlands and citizenship politics. He has ...

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