A British court ruled Friday against London suburbs that tried to block a pollution tax on older cars as green policies become a hot political issue in the U.K. amid increasingly dramatic impacts of global climate change.
The High Court ruled that Mayor Sadiq Khan had the authority to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, which charges drivers of older gas and diesel vehicles 12.50 pounds ($16) a day they operate, to the city's outskirts next month.
Five conservative councils challenged Khan's right to impose the measure. They criticized the expansion to an area where there are fewer public transport options and people are more reliant on cars, and because of a disproportionate impact on lower-income drivers who can't afford newer, cleaner cars.
Khan said the ruling would allow the expanded zone to take effect Aug. 29 and help reduce air pollution. He said he would also expand a program that provides financial assistance to some families and small businesses to scrap older cars.
“The ULEZ has already reduced toxic nitrogen dioxide air pollution by nearly half in central London and a fifth in inner London," said Khan, a member of the Labour Party. “The coming expansion will see 5 million more Londoners being able to breathe cleaner air.”
The five councils that challenged the zone issued a joint statement saying they were “hugely disappointed”. While they accepted that Khan may have the legal right to implement the measure, they questioned whether it was morally right.
“It is evident that the mayor of London and (Transport for London) do not realize the damage the extension will have to the lives of residents and businesses in outer London as well as those outside of its borders,” the group said.
The city's transportation agency said most gas vehicles under 16 years old and diesel vehicles less than 6 years old comply with the standard.
In April, a study from London City Hall found levels of nitrogen dioxide exceeded the legal limit in 14 of the city's 32 boroughs. Khan argued he had a statutory responsibility to take measures to improve air quality.
Nine out of 10 cars on the road in outer London on an average day comply with standards, Transport for London said. The Royal Automobile Club said nearly 700,000 licensed cars in London are unlikely to comply.
Fury over the the ULEZ expansion was credited last week with helping Tories hold one of three seats in Parliament in a special election. Conservatives had been expected to lose all three but they retained their seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Interestingly, the emissions charge was first imposed in 2015 by then-Mayor Boris Johnson, the Conservative who went on to become prime minister before resigning last year amid several scandals and quitting Parliament last month. It was his House of Commons seat Tories retained in the by-election.
The issue has now caused a crisis for the Labour Party, which is seen as likely to return to power next year after being ousted by Conservatives in 2010.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said there was no doubt ULEZ cost them the Uxbridge election and said Khan should “reflect” on the policy.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was widely quoted this week in a New Statesman magazine interview in which he cautioned: “Don’t ask us to do a huge amount when frankly whatever we do in Britain is not really going to impact climate change." The interview was conducted before the special elections.
The dust-up over how to control emissions comes as July is on target to be the hottest month in recorded human history and the effects of a warming planet can be seen in catastrophic wildfires, flooding and alarming ocean temperatures. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres this week declared: "The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”
While the by-election has caused consternation for Labour over how best to stick to a green agenda, it is also sparking a rethink for Conservatives who have been accused recently of backing away from pledges to combat climate change.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signaled this week he was open to revisiting net-zero policies, saying he'd take a pragmatic approach that didn't add more hassles or costs to people's lives. He caused confusion by not recommitting to a ban on gas and diesel cars by 2030, though cabinet minister Michael Gove later insisted that deadline was firm.