This article looks into the polluter pays principle and its modern day renaissance.


The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. This took place from the 14th century to the 17th century. The Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art. A fantastic example of this is Sandro Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which is pictured above. It looked great when it was pained in 1845 and it still looks great now.

The polluter pays principle is a really important aspect of environmental law. It originated from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It is a principle that if properly enacted and enforced, could be transformational in changing the relationship between man and the natural world.

The essence of the polluter pays principle is to make the party responsible for producing pollution, responsible for paying for the damage done to the natural environment. It is a simple principle, but its translation into reality has been underwhelming.

However, there has been one area in particular where the polluter pays principle has begun to flourish. Just as The Renaissance saw an explosion in activity in the arenas of art, architecture, thinking and writing. Perhaps this new modern renaissance of the polluter pays principle in dealing with urban air pollution could be the catalyst for applying the principle more widely to deal with other environmental problems.

Let’s now turn to a few UK examples of how the polluter pays principle is being applied to urban air pollution.


London already had a non charging low emission zone that covered most of Greater London. But as with most things in life, money talks and the impact of this non charging zone can be described as marginal at best.

What has really caught the public’s attention is the recently introduced Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) that went live in April 2019.


This is coming in two parts, which you can see from the picture above. The inner zone that went live in April 2019 and the expanded zone that will go live in October 2021.

The most polluting vehicles that do not meet the standards required of the ULEZ will incur the following charges:

  • £12.50 for private cars, vans, motorcycles and mopeds
  • £12.50 for taxis
  • £100 for buses, coaches and HGVs

I think it was the £100 charge for larger vehicles that was really driving interest in the ULEZ. But pollution from HGV’s are estimated to be responsible for £40 billion worth of costs in Europe. So, it is only fair that they pay for the damages that they incur.


Leeds is another city in the UK that will be introducing a clean air charging zone. It will go live in January 2020 and cover most of the city centre.

Leeds ULEZ

Non-compliant vehicles will incur the following charges:

  • No charge for private cars, vans, motorcycles and mopeds
  • £12.50 for taxis (or £50 per week for Leeds-licensed vehicles)
  • £50 for buses, coaches and HGVs

Again, just like London, this is a very positive step forward that will see those most responsible for urban air pollution paying for the damage that they create. My only disappointment is that there is no charge for private cars, but perhaps that will come with time.


Birmingham also has plans for a charging clean air zone that have been approved by the government.


This scheme will charge non-compliant vehicles at the following rate:

  • £8 for private cars and taxis
  • £50 for buses, coaches and HGVs
  • Motorcycles and mopeds are expected to be exempt

The zone in Birmingham will be introduced from 1 January 2020 on or inside the inner ring road.


Heathrow is neither a city or a local authority, but they have drawn up their own plans to improve air quality around the airport.

This would come into force in 2022, the Heathrow charging ULEZ will see vehicle standards identical to those of the London ULEZ applied for cars and private hire vehicles entering car parks and drop-off areas at any of the airport’s terminals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This policy was only announced in late May 2019 so precise figures for charges have not yet come about. But it is believed that a fee of £10 – £15 is being considered. It is also rumoured that black cabs will be exempt from the charge, which is something that I do not believe should be the case. The cost of their air pollution needs to be internalised so as to make public transport more attractive.


It is also worth pointing out that there are very advanced discussions for charging clean air zones in Bath, Sheffield and Manchester. However, the exact details of how these schemes will work has yet to be decided upon.

What you need to know

 This article looked into the polluter pays principle and its modern day renaissance.

The Renaissance was a period of rebirth and rejuvenation.

The polluter pays principle has struggled to flourish in the years since it was first conceived in 1992. But perhaps with urban air pollution we are seeing a problem that is well suited to being solved by the principle.

Time will tell how successful these schemes are. If they are successful, there is nothing to stop the polluter pays principle from being applied to other environmental problems.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think about the polluter pays principle?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby



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