London's mayor Sadiq Khan continues his war on bad air, with a new plan to pay motorists to scrap their filthy diesel cars. And not just a little "thank you" money either: the latest proposal out of the mayor's office is to give up to 70,000 drivers £3,500 (about $4,400) to buy cleaner vehicles.
London's air is a soupy embarrassment: The official London government Twitter account even tweets out a daily air-quality forecast so Londoners can know whether it's safe to venture outside. Khan's office is already sinking millions into cleaning the air: the mayor is banning cars from the iconic Oxford Street, spending $1 billion of cycling, and has stopped buying diesel buses. And yet, just five days into 2017, the capital hit its yearly pollution limits.
Vehicles are the largest source of pollutants in the city, if only because they crawl through the streets, spewing emissions all day every day. Khan plans at least to make them cleaner. The mayor's office has called on the government to pay drivers to replace the dirtiest vehicles: diesel vans and minibusses. Years ago, diesel was marketed as a green alternative, mostly because diesel engines get better mileage. "Diesel cars and vans—many of which were purchased in good faith by drivers who wrongly thought diesel was a ‘cleaner’ option—contribute massively to London’s current toxic air pollution," says the press release.
To remedy the situation without persecuting those drivers who acted in good faith, Khan proposes three measures. First are the payments, along with a fund to help charities and small businesses change their vehicles. Next is a credit scheme that incentivizes low incomes Londoners to join car-sharing schemes, use bikes, or shift to public transport. In effect, they would be paid to give up their cars.
Third, the mayor wants to scrap up to 10,000 polluting London taxis, the kind of old-style cars you imagine when you picture a London cab. These are usually diesel, and because they're on the road all day, contribute a good share of pollution. Payments of up to $1,250 would be made to their owners.
It's a bold plan, which could cost up to almost $650 million in compensation, but one wonders if paying people is enough to make them change their cars. And London will still face another big diesel problem: The U.K.'s Vehicle Excise Duty (a yearly tax for vehicles) still favors diesel vehicles, making them more attractive to buyers in some ways.
Vehicles in cities are a huge problem. As we are seeing, even if local government is brave enough to go to war on cars and trucks, these vehicles are so entrenched in all parts of city life and design that extracting them is a huge task. And yet it can be done, as we have seen in places like Copenhagen. Copenhagen got there by considering the full costs of cars, including their impact on health and the fabric of the city. And if Khan's proposed $650 million scheme is viewed as a part of the overall cost of cars, then perhaps the figure doesn't seem so big after all.