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London's Mayor Sadiq Khan and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attend an event to showcase green investment opportunities during the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on Nov. 3, 2021.POOL/Getty Images

Few cities have been more vigilant about imposing vehicle emission charges than London, and the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has used an appearance at COP26 to encourage other urban centres to follow suit.

“The issue of air quality is an issue of social justice,” Mr. Khan told reporters at the climate change conference in Glasgow on Wednesday. “We’re seeing thousands of premature deaths because of poor quality air.”

London became the first major city to introduce a congestion charge in 2003. Under the original scheme, vehicles entering the central core on weekdays had to pay a daily fee of £5, the equivalent now of $8.50. The fee, which has since been raised to £15 and is now charged every day, was credited for a reduction in traffic and an increase in public transit use. And it has been widely adopted elsewhere.

After taking office in 2016, Mr. Khan slapped an additional £10 “toxicity charge” on vehicles built before 2006. He replaced that charge two years later with an ultralow emission zone, or ULEZ.

The zone covered the same area as the congestion fee and it called for older cars – pre-2015 for diesel and pre-2006 for gasoline cars – to pay an extra £12.50 a day. Older trucks and buses were hit with a £100-a-day fee.

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Last month, Mr. Khan went further and expanded the ULEZ far beyond the downtown. It now covers roughly four million people, making it the largest zone of its kind in the world. That means anyone driving an older model car must pay £12.50 a day if they drive in the ULEZ and £27.50 if they also enter the congestion charge area.

Mr. Khan said the emission fee has already proven to be effective in reducing pollution. The level of nitrogen dioxide in the air fell by 44 per cent between 2017 and 2019, and officials expect it to drop further this year. “In the centre of London we have cleaner air,” Mr. Khan said. “I want all of London to breathe clean air, which is why I expanded the area of the ULEZ 18-fold.”

Other cities have taken an interest in the charge and Mr. Khan believes it will eventually become more common place. “There is no doubt that the central London ULEZ was a massive, massive success,” he said earlier this week.

Mr. Khan is also chair of a group called C40, a global network of about 100 large cities – including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver – that are committed to tackling climate change. The organization plans to help city officials better assess air quality so they can determine what type of control measures to adopt.

“Cities need to monitor how bad the air is,” Mr. Khan said Wednesday. “Normally cities can tell you how bad the air has been over the last year. What about real-time data? That will help cities know how bad the problem is and then how to find solutions.”

Emission charges alone aren’t enough, he added. Cities also have to introduce more electric buses and taxis, and work with developers to make buildings more energy efficient.

The ULEZ has not been welcomed by everyone. Many residents see it as an unfair tax on driving just as fuel prices soar because of supply issues. Several small-business owners have also complained about the added cost.

There’s also concern that the benefits could be offset by a growth in traffic volume because of a surge in home deliveries.

“There is a risk that online shopping and increased deliveries could reduce the impact of the ULEZ,” said Kate Langford, program director of the health effects of air pollution at Impact on Urban Health, a London-based non-profit organization. Ms. Langford said Transport for London, which oversees the city’s transit system, has projected a 43-per-cent rise in the kilometres travelled by vans between 2019 and 2041. That “will have huge consequences for congestion and air pollution,” she said.

However, Ms. Langford praised the expansion of the ULEZ and said it will be of particular help to low-income residents. The air quality in poor neighbourhoods has typically been far worse than in wealthier areas, and the ULEZ will decrease that inequity, she said. “Research suggests the expansion will, by 2030, reduce the air pollution difference between the most and least deprived areas by 71 per cent.”

Mr. Khan said programs like the ULEZ were examples of how city mayors must take the lead in climate change initiatives. “More than half the world’s population lives in cities and, according to the United Nations, over the next decade or two it will be more than two-thirds,” he said. “Cities have got to be the innovators, the problem solvers, the change makers, if we are going to fix climate change.”

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