By Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON (Reuters) - A London scheme to cut traffic emissions by imposing a daily charge on the most polluting vehicles expanded to the whole of the British capital on Tuesday, despite fierce opposition from those who say it will exacerbate a cost of living crisis.
The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was introduced in 2019 in a small part of central London and was further expanded in 2021. It will now extend to cover areas that are home to an extra five million people, often with fewer public transport links.
The ULEZ has been championed by Mayor Sadiq Khan as essential to reduce deaths from illnesses linked to air pollution and fight climate change.
But opponents argue the 12.50 pound ($16) daily charge on the thousands who drive older, more polluting vehicles, is unfair during a cost-of-living crisis and will cause economic damage.
"I took the decision to expand the ULEZ because experts believe it will save lives. It wasn't an easy one, but we cannot delay action when toxic air is linked with conditions like cancer and dementia," Khan said last week.
The mayor says nine in ten cars in London are already ULEZ-compliant, but opponents have challenged that figure.
Protesters have taken out their ire on ULEZ enforcement cameras, with London's Metropolitan Police recording 164 stolen and 185 damaged cameras as of Aug. 1. Purported videos of vandalism have also surfaced on social media platforms.
London's transport authority said it has increased security for the cameras. It plans to install a total of 2,750 cameras in outer London, of which 1,900 are currently in place.
Last month, a legal challenge from five affected local authorities in outer London and Surrey failed to stop the ULEZ expansion, while several local authorities which border London have refused to put up signs to alert motorists they are approaching the ULEZ in protest at the impact on their residents.
The expansion has ignited a debate in Britain, which is targeting net zero emissions by 2050, on how to implement environmental policies without alienating voters.
ULEZ was blamed for a narrow by-election defeat in outer London last month for the opposition Labour Party, which otherwise enjoys a strong opinion poll lead over the governing Conservatives ahead of a national election expected next year.
In a bid to calm the outcry following that defeat, Labour Mayor Khan announced additional funding to extend a ULEZ scrappage scheme to all Londoners with a non-compliant car. Critics have said the scheme, offering a grant of up to 2,000 pounds, is inadequate.
($1 = 0.7928 pounds)
(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Sharon Singleton)