Andrea Lee: “The Clean Air Zones, they’re not about banning all vehicles, they’re about banning the worst polluting ones”

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Andrea Lee, campaign and policy manager at Client Earth. Credit: Client Earth

The countdown to Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) launch is less than a week away (1 June). But the battle to get there and have the government comply with the legal limits of air pollution wasn’t an easy task. Client Earth, an environmental law charity, had to do three legal battles against the British government to see some change.

But the solution didn’t come from the government. “The position that the government has taken, following our cases, is to really pass the buck on to local authorities” said Andrea Lee, the campaign and policy manager for the clean air team at Client Earth. This means that it was up to local councils to come up with an idea to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The determination of the people working at Client Earth was that they’d make sure the local authorities would come up with a quick solution. And in most cases, that solution was the CAZ.

“Clean Air Zones are the most effective option for quickly tackling illegal levels of air pollution in the shortest time possible”.

Birmingham as the good student

Birmingham is one of the cities which is still going ahead with the launch of a Clean Air Zone.

“Birmingham City Council, from the beginning, said that they would do what they needed to do and if that involved tackling emissions from private cars, that they would do that as well. And they’ve held on true to their word. Because obviously, the analysis did end up showing that it’s widely known that private cars contribute to the problem.”

The Clean Air Zone in Birmingham will be delimited by the A4540 Middleway

The CAZ that is set to launch on 1 June in Birmingham is of Class D, the most restricting one since it includes private cars. Bath, the other city with a Clean Air Zone, went with a Class C which does not include private cars. Other cities are due to implement a CAZ later this year and in 2022.

This difference shows how each city can choose what option they prefer despite the fact that: “In most cases, the analysis that local authorities produce often shows that private vehicles are a key source of these illegal levels of air pollution. But they still try and find ways to justify for not including them”.

If cities like Bath and Birmingham end up implementing a CAZ is not to restrict the traffic but as Andrea Lee said: “The Clean Air Zones they’re not about banning all vehicles, they’re about banning the worst polluting ones.”

Lockdown and the reduction of air pollution

Last year’s global lockdown showed how levels of air pollution decreased. Which Andrea said made some people realise that they were living in polluted environments, and that they want to see change happen. She made it clear that this happened by unprecedented restrictions, and is therefore not the solution. “It should come in a strategic and supported way”, she said.

Lowering the levels of air pollution is possible but she said: “What we can’t do is put the burden on individuals to make that change”. On different occasions, she mentioned that in order to lower the levels of air pollution the government has to give the help and support people need and not make them feel that their mobility is restricted.

The inequalities of air pollution

One of the points of discussion that was brought up during the interview was how air pollution doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Lee said: “People from low-income households, people from ethnic minorities, are disproportionately affected by air quality” and added “I think it just highlights that, you know, it’s not just about health but it’s also this sort of social environmental health injustices that have been going on for very long”.

And she explained that usually people with low income tend to have a lower car ownership rate, use them less and own petrol vehicles instead of diesel, because these cars are more expensive up front. Petrol cars up to 15 years old are exempt to pay a charge when entering a CAZ. Compared to six years for a diesel one.

Andrea said that they’re not going to be as affected by these restrictions as people think, and they also will see the benefits from lowering the levels of air pollution.

A sign showing the proximity of the CAZ in Birmingham

Cities that did not end up launching a Clean Air Zone

When asked about alternatives to Clean Air Zones or examples made in the UK, Lee brought up the case of Nottingham. Andrea said the city was mandated to implement the Clean Air Zone. But Nottingham’s analysis showed that, a quick way that would help reduce the air pollution was by cleaning their bus fleet and emissions from older taxis. And since it had a solid public transport infrastructure it helped them lower the levels of emissions to the legal limits.

Another city who did not end up implementing a CAZ is Leeds,

“They found that because they were one of the initial local authorities who simply got on with developing the plans, and they were able to implement a lot of the policies and measures ahead of have actually implemented the Clean Air Zone. Which helped to kind of clean up their local taxi fleets that gave out grants to local heavy goods vehicle owners that their compliance was being delivered already without the Clean Air Zone.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Leeds no longer has an air quality issue.

“While they may be able to say that they don’t need to go ahead with the Clean Air Zone to meet the UK government’s definition of compliance, I think the city itself would admit that it still has a long way to go to deal with his actual local air pollution problem”.

To tackle the problem of air pollution, the solution passes by reducing the sources that emit those pollutants that make the air quality worse and as Lee said: “In the end of the day, there is no safe level of air pollution. We need to be going further” adding that “They all are starting to recognize the World Health Organization’s very clear that there’s no safe level”.

At the moment there is no indication on the government’s website of which city will launch a CAZ next. This is despite the fact that: “There are still 33 air quality zones out of the 43 that cover the whole of the UK that are still not complying with these legal limits that were set in place to help protect people’s health.”

The Clean Air Zone will launch in 1 June in Birmingham, you can read more about it here.

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