Thursday, 19 April 2012

Would You Be Prepared to Pay-As-You-Drive?

by Lara Smallman

Britain is legally obliged to reduce its carbon output by 50% within the next 13 years. No surprise then, that since the announcement of this target, ways of making our society less polluting have been coming in thick and fast…

We’ve been charged for plastic bags when we shop, asked to recycle, to fly less, to change our light bulbs - the list goes on. To varying degrees, these all came as somewhat of a shock at first, but soon enough we adapted, and have become accustomed to frequent requests or demands that we act that little bit greener. 

In London we’ve had a congestion charge zone since 2003. You have to pay if you want to drive your car in to or around central London during peak hours on a weekday. The charge is £10, which rises sharply to between £60 and £187 upon non-payment. But this was never intended as a carbon cutting initiative. Rather, its aim was and still is to reduce congestion and raise funds for London Transport. In any case, air quality has improved in London since the creation of the congestion zone.

In a move that looked like the Government may finally be honouring its promise to be the greenest one yet, drivers of the worst offending gas-guzzling cars were, in last month’s budget, given a rise in Vehicle Excise Duty Tax. My high hopes were incredibly short-lived however, as the Chancellor went on to announce that it would be drivers of the greenest vehicles who’d pay the most. At present they pay no tax, but plans to end this exemption will see them face a bill of more than £2,000 by 2015, that’s double £1,030 faced by those driving high-polluting vehicles.

Eager to find out what the candidates for London Mayor have in store for us, I asked all four about there plans for expanding the congestion charge zone at a debate last week, which you can see in this video.

Along comes a woman who is not only determined to see us meet 2015 targets, but who insists she has the ideas to reduce our carbon emissions substantially. She says she is used to being labeled “mad” and ”nutty”. Her name is Jenny Jones, and she is the Green Party’s candidate for London Mayor. She’s being called these names because she has vowed, if elected, to get rid of the congestion charge zone (after a period of three years) and replace it with something even more controversial, a pay-as-you-drive charging scheme. In a bid to make us realise just how damaging driving is to the planet, Jones wants us to pay a fee relative to how much we drive. She also wants to introduce a speed limit of 20mph across the majority of London.

Are disincentives like this going to make us change our ways, or would rewards for green behaviour be a more effective approach? Ultimately we need a greener way of doing things, but we also need public support too, or the initiatives will fail. So, could we and would get used to a pay-as-you-drive scheme, just like we have with all the other top-down Government initiatives? Or is this simply too nutty, too invasive (as it would track our every move), and too limiting (as more affluent people could drive as much as they wanted)? I wonder, are these initiatives really the only way to ensure London is sustainable for future generations, as Jones insists, or is there a better way?

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