Blog Competition - Climate Transitions PhD Conference: Winning Entry

Our delegates attended a science communication workshop run by Dr Warren Pearce, and were invited to enter an article into our blogging competition.

Our runners up were Erin Nash and Malcolm Morgan and the winning article was written by Jonathan Kershaw, who discusses the impact of the new ULED congestion charge in London. We received some high quality articles and would like to thank all of our entrants and congratulate Jonathan.
 
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If ULEV me now...
...you’ll qualify for exemption from the congestion charge introduced July 1st 2013. But is the new benchmark for the Mayor of London’s new Ultra Low Emission Discount (ULED) too much too soon?
 
The bar is about to be raised on London’s congestion charge. Since the new benchmark was introduced on July 1st, only the most eco-friendly vehicles – known as ‘Ultra Low Emission Vehicles’ – remain exempt from the £10 a day charge which reduced traffic in central London by approximately 20%  between 2002 and 2006, with traffic having fallen 10% across London since 2000.
 
The headline question is whether a car emits less than 75g of carbon dioxide (CO2) per km. If it does, it’s exempt (if it also meets Euro 5 emission standards). But drivers of cars which emit between 75 and 100g of CO2 per km will face a congestion charge for the first time.
 
So, if you drive a Nissan Leaf, a Vauxhall Ampera or a Toyota Prius Plug-in, you’ll be exempt from the charge. But drivers of relatively fuel-efficient cars like the Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion or the Ford Fiesta ECOnetic will face a congestion charge, although a ‘sunset period’ of three years means that these vehicles won’t pay the charge until 2016.
 
According to Transport for London (TfL), the move is partly to reduce the air pollution impact of diesel cars which, while emitting less CO2 than many equivalent petrol cars, have higher emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.
 
From an environmental point of view, the lowering of the emission threshold is obviously a positive measure – we’ve all seen pictures of the haze in Los Angeles or, more recently, the smog in Beijing, and we imbibe an airborne cocktail of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, ozone and hydrocarbons along every busy road we walk down.
 
And it is certainly incongruous that there have been congestion charge-exempt yet still air-polluting diesel cars, illustrating the perils of concentrating on CO2 emissions at the expense of other pollutants (incidentally, diesel models now account for 50% of the UK new car market). Nonetheless, thanks to improved emission technologies and bureaucrats beating car manufacturers with their legislative sticks, cars sold in the UK and across Europe are much cleaner than they once were and, as a result, air pollution from their engines has greatly reduced, and will continue to do so.
 
However, any emission reductions achieved by car manufacturers are perhaps tantamount to ‘running to stand still’ as localised air pollution will continue to be a problem as car numbers increase.
 
London is not alone in trying to reduce automotive air pollution – plans were unveiled last year to cut air pollution in Paris by banning cars over 17 years old from entering the city. However, the only vehicles that currently meet the new ULED emission thresholds – such as those cited above – are very expensive, especially when compared to more conventional cars; indeed their cost has long been cited as a barrier to their uptake. That said, prices are coming down all the time, as illustrated by the new Renault Zoe and the recently refreshed Nissan Leaf, which now offers the option of a lower purchase price with battery-leasing.
 
However, setting a tighter emissions threshold begs the question as to whether TfL will foment a transition to greener cars, or simply alienate existing low-carbon motorists who thought they were already doing the ‘right thing’ and may not be able to afford the latest plug-in technologies. The current financial climate means that this is a lousy time to launch emerging ‘big-ticket’ technology, and questions must be raised as to the ethics of disenfranchising at a stroke those who either wish to become low-carbon motorists or who already thought they were.
 
The impetus for any social change needs to come from the bottom up, to begin with people, and so it is with automobility – indeed, the socio-cultural significance of the car means that such impetus is even more important. The fact that car manufacturers are producing all manner of low carbon vehicles is great news, but if people don’t want or can’t afford them, then they won’t buy them, which can be a problem if their uptake is being left to an open market which may have little knowledge of new low carbon automotive technologies.
 
Mother Nature may not care for our actions and the environmental impacts therein, which is why policies like the congestion charge can be crucial. However, the necessary technological and financial leap from a 100g CO2/km threshold to a 75g CO2/km is potentially huge and, without affordable means to navigate them, it is possible that a motoring public may regard policies such as the new lower emissions threshold as simply draconian.
 
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Jonathan Kershaw is a PhD research student based at Coventry University, researching the socio-cultural ‘consumption’ of the car and how our relationship with the car might impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles. A self confessed ‘treehugging petrolhead’, he is also interested in wider environmental and sustainability issues beyond the car.

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