Air is a good thing. It fills our lungs from our first breath to our last, which allows the oxygen we rely on to be fired around our bodies to keep us functioning. It comes with breezes that cool hot days and with sudden scents of summer plants that add vibrancy to the world. Our air should be something to celebrate. But it is not.
Our air is full of poisons, at levels that are dangerous to us. I spoke about this before the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2017. Back then it was estimated that 10,000 people died prematurely each year as a result of London’s toxic air. Air pollution is a particular risk to the young – it can stunt the growth of children’s lungs – the elderly and those with heart conditions.
The ULEZ was introduced, initially only in central London, to tackle three particular toxins: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) nitrogen oxides (NOx) and microscopic particulate matter (PM.2.5). And it was effective at reducing them: NO2, which irritates the upper respiratory tract and lungs even at low concentrations, was reduced by 44 per cent, and NOx, which can cause damage to the respiratory tract and chronic lung disease after long-term exposure, was reduced by 35 percent or 230 tonnes in the first ten months.
The PM2.5 particles, which are largely manmade and can cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease and cancers, were reduced by 27 per cent in the central zone. The number of premature deaths has significantly reduced and is now down to 4,000 a year as a result of Sadiq Khan’s policies for addressing air pollution.
The Mayor’s £61 million scrappage scheme, which contributed to taking 13,000 of the most polluting vehicles off the street, helped to bring these numbers down and assisted Londoners who wanted to switch to vehicles that met ULEZ standards.
In 2017 I made a speech about air – or more specifically about air quality – and the huge mountain we had to climb to make London’s clean and safe for its citizens. We are still climbing that mountain. With the ULEZ now expanded to just inside the North and South Circular roads, we’ve made great progress in inner London, but in outer London illegal levels of pollution are still being recorded. A ULEZ expanded to cover the whole of the capital will protect all Londoners.
Many already have ULEZ compliant cars, but some will still need financial help with changing to newer, cleaner vehicles. That’s why I’m calling for a national scrappage scheme, which would include London. The Mayor’s scheme, which he funded, was a success. Now we need to see the government step up and help Londoners too.
This issue is vital to all who live in our city, no matter where they live. There’s still time to have your say about a further expanded ULEZ, which is being consulted on until 29 July. Make your voice heard, make the case for a healthier London and make sure no one is left behind.
Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member and represents the Merton & Wandsworth constituency. Follow Leonie on Twitter.
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