Nick Arlett is a retired builder living in West Wickham, southeast London, and he owns a Renault Trafic van that runs on diesel fuel. If Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, gets his way, Mr. Arlett will soon have to pay about $16 a day to drive his vehicle in the city — an amount Mr. Arlett says he can’t afford.
That’s because on Aug. 29, Mr. Khan plans to extend London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to every borough of the capital in an effort to improve air quality and prevent illnesses and deaths caused by air pollution. To stop the measure from going through, Mr. Arlett is leading a campaign called “Action Against ULEZ Extension” with some 30,000 members.
“I would absolutely be immobilized,” said Mr. Arlett in a phone interview about the ULEZ expansion. Noting that he lived on “a pretty meager pension,” he added: “I can’t see anything else at the moment besides being confined indoors, because I will not be able to afford to go out.”
Mr. Arlett said many in the area were much worse off, such as older adults and disabled people whose caregivers would soon be “unable to get to them” because they, too, had noncompliant cars.
“People will die. People will commit suicide,” Mr. Arlett said. The mayor “will cause a lot of deaths.” As for the roughly $140 million scrappage plan that Mr. Khan has set up to compensate drivers of noncompliant cars, it has detailed eligibility criteria and Mr. Arlett said he knew a number of people who had applied for the scheme and had been turned down.
The expansion of the ULEZ is bringing five million more people into a plan that was introduced in central London in 2019. According to city officials, 90 percent of the vehicles in the expansion zone are already compliant.
Improving air quality and finding local solutions to climate change are among the topics being discussed by leaders in business, politics and policy during London Climate Action Week, which runs through Sunday.
The ULEZ expansion is meeting with howls of protest, not just from Mr. Khan’s political opponents — five Conservative Party-led local government bodies, or councils, have begun a judicial review in the High Court to halt the proposed expansion — but from four lawmakers from his own Labour Party, who accuse him of hurting working people when household budgets are extremely squeezed.
The ULEZ has also sent angry citizens such as Mr. Arlett out into the streets and led an enraged minority to damage city equipment. In March, farmers drove tractors through the streets of Orpington, southeast London, in protest. Dozens of acts of vandalism have been committed against ULEZ monitoring cameras within the planned expansion zone: Cameras have had their wires cut off and their lenses painted over in black.
Mr. Khan, who has been London’s mayor since 2016, has personal reasons for decreasing air pollution. In 2014, as a member of Parliament, he was asked to run in the London Marathon to raise money for a charitable cause. After being declared fit in a medical examination, he trained for eight weeks and ran the marathon.
A few months later, he noticed that he wasn’t feeling well: He had to clear his throat in midsentence and wheezed when he played soccer with friends or went for a jog. By the end of 2014, he was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma.
“Doing something I enjoyed — running — in the city that I love had made me sick,” Mr. Khan said in a podcast interview with The Guardian last month. “That began my journey to find out a bit more about what causes air pollution. And that’s when I discovered: the same thing that causes air pollution causes climate change.”
Driven by his own experience, and by a 9-year-old girl’s death from an asthma attack caused by London air pollution, Mr. Khan announced in 2017 that he was following up on plans from his predecessor, Boris Johnson, introducing the ULEZ in London, and imposing a daily charge on any noncompliant vehicles driving around the capital. The ULEZ started in 2019 in central London, then extended to a wider area in October 2021.
Mr. Khan, who has just published a book called “Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency,” said in the Guardian podcast: “I think clean air is a human right, not a privilege.”
According to a report published by the mayor’s office, pollution levels in inner London are 21 percent below what they would have been without the ULEZ. Since the zone was first expanded in 2021, there are 60 percent — or 74,000 — fewer polluting vehicles driving in the area, and air quality has improved for more than four million people.
Prof. Frank Kelly, a global expert on the health consequences of toxic air who leads the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College in London, said air pollution was a striking, though invisible, risk to human health.
“An overwhelming body of evidence exists that the health effects of air pollution are serious and can affect nearly every organ of the body,” Professor Kelly wrote in a post on the Imperial Medicine Blog. “Recent studies and large research programs have also shown that these harmful health effects are not limited to high exposures but can also occur at very low concentrations.”
He noted that the inner boroughs of London had experienced “significant progress in improving air quality” in the last several years, and added: “In outer London, which lacks such interventions, improvements in air quality have been much slower.”
Under the Mayor’s $140 million scrappage plan, owners of cars and wheelchair-accessible vehicles have to be “on certain low income or disability benefits” to qualify; those who do will get up to about $2,500 for a car and up to about $6,400 for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Grants of about $6,400 to about $12,000 are available for small businesses, sole traders or registered charities that own vans and minibuses.
But opposition persists. In a telephone interview, the leader of Bromley’s council, Colin Smith, explained why Bromley was one of the five London boroughs urging a judicial review of the ULEZ expansion.
“The damage is going to go to local businesses, local employment and the sustainability of vital care networks,” he said. He noted that a significant number of care homes were inhabited by older adults whose caregivers and relatives lacked compliant cars, and who, under an expanded ULEZ, would no longer be able to visit them.
The mayor “is trying to raise taxes: He’s a politician,” said Mr. Smith, who argued that Mr. Khan’s objective was “to set in place a network of cameras” stretching all the way to the outer limits of greater London, “at which point he’s then going to move to road price charging,” a pay-per-mile plan that would charge every car based on its usage of the road network.
Mr. Khan is running for what would be a record third term in May 2024.
Yet in a video interview, Shirley Rodrigues, deputy mayor for environment and energy, dismissed any suggestion that Mr. Khan was doing it for the money. She said all of the funds raised by the ULEZ expansion plan — estimated by city officials at $250 million in the first two years, dropping to zero by 2026-27 — were earmarked toward London’s public transportation system and the creation of new bus routes.
The deputy mayor said 4,000 Londoners were dying prematurely every year from air pollution, thousands of asthma sufferers were being admitted to hospitals, and children were growing up with permanently stunted lungs.
“There’s a lot of ignorance about air pollution. The problem is that it’s an invisible killer,” Ms. Rodrigues said. “Over half of the households in London don’t even own a car. And the very poorest are the most affected by air pollution.”