Critics of London Mayor Boris Johnson's ambitious air pollution plan may be missing the bigger picture.

This month, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced what could rank as the most ambitious anti-pollution plans any major city has yet seen. By 2020, central London will become an ultra-low emissions zone, Johnson hopes, an area where only zero or low emissions vehicles are permitted during working hours. With gas guzzlers, diesel trucks and London’s current geriatric taxi fleet all banned from central streets, citizens and goods will circulate solely via electric and hybrid vehicles. Six hundred hybrid buses, the first installment of the plan, are due to enter service in 2016, putting London on the path to becoming one of the most proactively green cities in the world.

So proactive are the plans, in fact, that the mayor’s opponents smell a rat, or rather a buck-passing “wish list” as opposed to a real statement of intent. Greens in the London Assembly have noted tartly that London’s publicity stunt-loving Mayor has placed the plan’s delivery date safely beyond his own term. The scheme is nonetheless the highest tidemark yet for a growing Europe-wide wave of plans to slash center city car use. Across the continent, city after city is pushing through new legislation designed to flush non-hybrid vehicles out of town.

Paris is one of the cities riding this wave. Since 2010, it has hugely increased its bus and bike lanes and introduced an electric car sharing scheme. Now Mayor Bertrand Delanoe plans to ban cars made before 1995 from within the greater Paris beltway, levy tolls on trucks crossing the city and cut the speed limit on the Périphérique ring road that brackets inner Paris. Elsewhere, Milan also introduced a congestion charge area last winter, while Sweden’s second city of Gothenburg launched its own toll-controlled zone this January. Meanwhile, Rome banned heavily polluting vehicles from the city in November, and cut cold weather emissions by insisting that most non-residential buildings keep their winter heat and power use to a strict 12 hour slot. Joining existing congestion charge zones in London, Stockholm, and Riga, these new restrictions reflect a growing European consensus – if we want to keep city air clean, simply providing good public transport and hoping cars will go away is not enough.

The consensus is right, of course. American transit enthusiasts may look wistfully at European cities’ high levels of public transport use, but the truth is that many of Europe’s urban areas still have potentially deadly levels of air pollution. Up to 9 percent of London deaths are linked to man-made airborne particles, while in France as a whole, 42,000 early deaths annually may be brought on by particulate inhalation.  It’s admittedly unfair to blame all these deaths on city car use. In London, for example, 40 percent of nitrogen dioxide and at least 60 percent of particulates in the air originate outside the city and blow in on the wind, while figures in France show that the country’s industry releases more particulates into the air than road traffic.  When pollutant levels in city districts exceed agreed European Union levels, however, it’s invariably local road traffic that’s pushing them over.

Despite Europe’s new wave of stridency in this area, it seems that plans currently in place still aren’t doing enough. London’s air quality remains poor in cold or hot weather despite its ten years of congestion charging, which may soon be extended to many hybrids because they still emit too much carbon dioxide. With London’s ultra-low emissions zone plans, it’s now at least clear that mainstream institutions, and not just green groups, are thinking hard about where to look next.

Top image: Visible haze caused by air pollution can be seen in central London in this 2010 file photos. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

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