Khan’s Emissions Surcharge Will Not Reduce Pollution

Sorcha Ni Bhuaigh July 7, 2016 1
Khan’s Emissions Surcharge Will Not Reduce Pollution

This week, Mayor Sadiq Khan set out plans to introduce an Emissions Surcharge for London vehicles. The aim is to reduce air pollution by taxing “older, dirtier vehicles” which produce more oxides of nitrogen than newer cars. This would see drivers in Central London pay a fee of £10 if their car is registered before January 2006 (October 2006 for busses and January 2007 for vans) and applies in addition to a congestion charge of £11.50 which is already in place.

There is little doubt that the air in London’s central areas is incredibly polluted. Earlier this year, pollution in the city reached “black” levels, especially in the busy shopping streets. However, despite Mr. Khan’s good intentions, trends suggest that when factoring in consumer dependency, levies have little to no preventative effect beyond a certain threshold. Furthermore, the scientific research which inspired this proposal is uncertain.

Drivers who already pay the £11.50 congestion charge to travel in the city are likely to be committed to this arrangement such that paying a further £10, while inconvenient, will not cause them to take their vehicles off the roads. Many of them are businesses using freight deliveries who already pay various surcharges. It remains more cost-effective for them to pay an extra £10 daily than to invest in new vehicles.

This is consistent with how London’s traffic flow has more or less stagnated despite a 130% increase in the congestion charge since its introduction in 2003. When the congestion charge was first introduced, there was an immediate effect where traffic went down by about 15%. By 2012, however, TfL reported that traffic congestion was at pre-charging levels. As you’d imagine, many private commuters decided to switch to public transport after the charge was introduced, and the situation has not changed. There are not many private commuters left in the Congestion Charge Zone for Khan’s surcharge to target.

In any case, it is estimated that only 6% of vehicles in London (i.e. congestion charge payers who drive old cars) will be affected by the emissions surcharge. Even if a majority of that small demographic were to take their cars off the roads (which they likely would not), the effect on air pollution levels in the context of over 3,500,000 vehicles appears insignificant.

Furthermore, it is not necessarily true that vehicles registered before 2006 are de facto more harmful to the environment. According to research by Mike Berners-Lee, one of Britain’s leading experts on carbon footprinting, keeping an old car aggregately produces less carbon emissions than that produced by making a new car. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a new car ranges from 6 to 35 tonnes of CO2e. In contrast, five years of driving an old Volkswagen Golf yields just 7.9 tonnes of CO2e. Khan’s proposed levy would discourage drivers from recycling/buying second-hand cars in favour of these high-tech gas-guzzlers. By incentivizing drivers to buy new cars so as to avoid the new surcharge, Khan could inadvertently cause more harm to the environment!

Khan claims that there are “nearly 10,000 people dying early every year in London due to exposure to air pollution”. This is based on a study conducted by Kings College London for TfL, which established a causal link between early mortality and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulates (PM2.5). However, there are methodological problems with this study. While previous research only studied the effects of fine particulates (PM2.5), this new research studied NO2 in addition to that. The results do not mean that more people are dying compared to before, but rather that a larger subject pool was studied. This is not to say that early mortality is not linked to air pollution. However, the KCL research does not establish a recent increase.

The study also doesn’t distinguish between outdoor and indoor pollutants. Whether NO2 and PM2.5 are more concentrated indoors compared to outdoors is dependent on a number of factors – cooking, smoking, operating fireplaces, types of heaters and fuel, etc. The environmental scientist Bjorn Lomborg argues that, on a global level, it is not outdoor air pollution which causes early mortality. It’s indoor air pollution.

Arguably, studying the health and state of London homes would be a better use of Mr. Khan’s resources than introducing a surcharge which, rather than reducing congestion, will only inconvenience people who have no choice but to drive in the city.

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