A guest blog by Bruce Whyte, Public Health Programme Manager, Glasgow Centre for Population Health
I work in public health and have been involved in a range of research on active and sustainable travel over the last decade. I am also a Glasgow resident, cycling commuter, dog walker, bus user and car driver. I travel through the city centre by bike most days and so I have a keen personal and professional interest in Scotland’s first LEZ and its likely impact.
Why is it being introduced?
On 1 June 2023, a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) came into force. This means that all vehicles entering the city centre zone need to meet specific pollution emission standards or face a penalty charge. In general, diesel engine vehicles registered after September 2015, and petrol vehicles registered from 2006 onwards will meet the required LEZ standards, and older vehicles will not.
Whilst air pollution levels in Glasgow have been reducing, harmful nitrogen dioxide(NO2) are still being recorded in our city centre at levels that do not meet the legal requirements. Glasgow's LEZ is being introduced to further reduce levels of harmful vehicle emissions and it is hoped it will also help accelerate the uptake of less polluting vehicles and increase the safety, attractiveness, and amenity of the city centre. Alongside reducing air pollution, encouraging more people to walk, cycle, wheel and to use public transport is seen as key in shifting to an active and sustainable transport system , improving population health and regenerating cities and town centres .
What are the impacts of air pollution on health?
Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental risks to health. The WHO estimated that in 2019 outdoor air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide. By reducing air pollution levels, we can reduce the number of people suffering and dying from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases, including asthma.
A range of air pollutants are generated by road transport, the most prominent of which are NO2 and small particulate matter – largely derived from tyre and brake wear of vehicles. The main effect of breathing in raised levels of NO2 is the increased likelihood of respiratory problems. NO2 inflames the lining of the lungs and can reduce immunity to lung infections, causing problems such as wheezing, coughing, colds, flu and bronchitis.
Particulate Matter (PM) - particles of variable but very small diameter - penetrate the respiratory system via inhalation, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reproductive and central nervous system dysfunctions, and cancer. Exposure to particulate matter, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5), is associated with an increased overall risk of death and shorter average life expectancy, especially for people who already have poor heart or lung health. There is growing evidence suggesting that particulate matter, even at relatively low levels, may increase the risk of a range of other illnesses.
Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. In 2010, the Environment Audit Committee considered that the cost of health impacts of air pollution was likely to exceed estimates of £8 to 20 billion. Currently, there is no clear evidence of a safe level of exposure where there is no risk of adverse health effects. (UK Government, Health Matters: air pollution).
A Health Protection Scotland (now part of Public Health Scotland) air pollution and health briefing note estimated that approximately 50 deaths per 100,000 adults were attributable to PM2.5 in Glasgow in 2016. This equated to over 200 attributable deaths in Glasgow city and more than 600 deaths across the Glasgow City Region in that year. Across Scotland over 1700 deaths were attributed to PM2.5 air pollution. As well as its impact on premature deaths, air pollution contributes to health problems throughout life from pregnancy and birth through adolescence into adulthood.
How does this relate to policy?
Reducing air pollution is a Scottish Government objective which complements the government’s aims of reducing carbon emissions and achieving Scotland’s Climate Change targets.
Locally, Glasgow has committed to being carbon neutral by 2030 and, in order to achieve this, aims to reduce transport related emissions through investing in active travel (including the Avenues Programme, City Ways and a People First City Centre), improving public transport and reducing traffic.
What are the likely health impacts of the LEZ?
Levels of key air pollutants have already been dropping in recent years in Glasgow, partly due to the earlier implementation of the LEZ for buses in 2018 – this led to the replacement of older fleet vehicles with new, cleaner diesel engine buses and a growing number of electric buses.
In the last 15 years LEZs have been introduced in many German cities and results indicate that their introduction has reduced air pollutant concentrations and that tighter emission limits lead to significantly bigger health benefits . In London, there have been clear improvements in air quality but the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) on its own has only produced modest reductions in air pollutant concentrations, suggesting that many complementary policies have combined to reduce pollution levels.
In Glasgow, the introduction of the LEZ, combined with other measures to restrict traffic and planned improvements to public transport and active travel, offers the opportunity for further pollution reductions and health benefits.
Concerns have been raised that the LEZ will negatively affect people on low incomes who are more likely to have older cars, and those who work unsociable hours with a need to travel into the city centre at times when public transport alternatives are not available. Although it is unclear how many might be affected, this type of impact must be considered as a risk. Mitigation measures have been brought in to limit adverse impacts, including:
• blue badge holders can apply for an exemption
• residents in the zone have been given an extra year’s grace period before their vehicles need to be compliant
• taxi operators can apply for a temporary exemption to apply to a retrofit fund
• in exceptional circumstances time-limited exemptions of up to one year can be applied for
Overall, these concerns point to the need to provide better and more affordable public transport alternatives to the car alongside improved active travel options - both are happening but at a slow pace.
The Glasgow LEZ aims to improve air quality and protect health in a city where the population suffer from a range of health and social problems. The LEZ is no magic bullet but is an important public health measure. Alongside improvements to public transport and active travel, it should provide long-term health benefits for people living and working in Glasgow. A thorough evaluation on the impact of the LEZ, including any unintended consequences and transport inequalities, will be essential to evidence its health and social impacts.
Ultimately, I hope the LEZ, alongside the other measures mentioned, will help create a healthier and more pleasant environment for those of us who live and work in Glasgow.
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