ULEZ: How conspiracy theories pollute London’s clean air policy

By: pallavi sethi&
August 28 2023

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 ULEZ: How conspiracy theories pollute London’s clean air policy

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As cities worldwide grapple with environmental challenges, policies aimed at climate change mitigation have frequently become entangled with unfounded conspiracies. The latest casualty of this trend is the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) initiative, spearheaded by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. On August 29, 2023, Khan plans to expand the existing ULEZ to cover all 32 London boroughs. Vehicles that do not meet ULEZ emission standards for pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter will be charged £12.50 daily to enter these areas. However, Khan's well-intentioned initiative hasn't deterred conspiracy theorists: those who initially spewed misinformation against 15-minute cities and Low-Traffic Neighborhoods (LTNs) have now broadened their scope to include the ULEZ.

These expansion plans have also been marred by political polarization. Following his victory in the recent Uxbridge and Ruislip by-election, Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell attributed the Labour Party's loss to Khan's "damaging and costly ULEZ policy." Tuckwell's view is shared by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who believes the "ULEZ was the reason" for their defeat.

Major U.K. political parties were not the only ones wading into the row. Independent political contenders known for disseminating climate and COVID-related conspiracy theories also ran in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip elections, propagating false information about the ULEZ. Amid this, misinformation narratives have spread and conflated with existing conspiracies, distorting the real purpose of the initiative. 

What is the ULEZ?

The ULEZ has transcended political party lines. It was initially introduced by the then-Mayor of London and Conservative Party member Boris Johnson in 2015. Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor and member of the Labour Party, implemented the scheme in 2019. It enforces strict emission standards through Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. Drivers whose vehicles fail to meet the criteria will be charged £12.50 to drive within the ULEZ, which operates alongside the congestion charge system, creating a dual approach to address urban traffic-related challenges. 

Khan initially implemented the scheme in central London, covering the same area as the Congestion Charge Zone. In 2021, independent research by Imperial College London found that toxic air impacted the premature deaths of around 4,000 individuals in London. The initiative expanded to the North and South Circular Roads in the same year. Khan later announced plans in November 2022 to expand the ULEZ to cover all London boroughs. This came after a public consultation which ran between May and July 2022.

Khan has time and again stated the benefits of the ULEZ. A spokesperson for the Mayor of London told Logically Facts that “expanding the ULEZ London-wide will enable millions more people to breathe clean air.” Scientific research backs Khan’s assertions. Data from a City Hall Report indicates a 46 percent drop in nitrogen oxide emissions in central London and a 21 percent decrease in inner London compared to what they would have been without the ULEZ. The scheme also contributed to an approximately five percent decrease in traffic congestion and a 60 percent reduction in non-compliant vehicles within the designation zone.

However, Khan's ULEZ scheme has faced severe criticism since its introduction. In February 2023, five councils - Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon, and Surrey County Council - jointly initiated a High Court case to contest the ULEZ's expansion. The court ruled in favor of Khan. Some have opposed the ULEZ for economic reasons due to the financial ramifications of replacing non-compliant vehicles. However, besides a scrappage scheme providing grants to those eligible, Khan has changed the payments. “The Mayor has listened to businesses, and scrappage payments for vans have increased from £5,000 to £7,000. Retrofit grants have also increased from £5,000 to  £6000, typically enough to cover the whole cost of retrofitting,” Khan’s spokesperson confirmed to Logically Facts. But this has not quelled discontent, and some have linked the ULEZ to conspiratorial narratives.

The ULEZ as part of a broader climate conspiratorial narrative

Since late 2022, there has been a notable increase in misinformation about climate mitigation policies within the United Kingdom. Prominent narratives surrounding various policies, including Oxford's traffic filters, the urban planning concept of 15-minute cities, and London's ULEZ initiative, share a common thread. The underlying message suggests that these policies are part of a larger “globalist agenda” to exert control over individual freedom and movement. Several narratives promoting "climate lockdown" originated during COVID-19 as a reaction to government intervention measures such as lockdowns.

Screenshot of X post from known conspiracy theorist linking climate policies. (Source: X)

Many anti-ULEZ protests have occurred in London since March 2023, their banners finding prominence in U.K.-based COVID and climate conspiracy channels. According to a BBC report, participants in one anti-ULEZ protest in Trafalgar Square displayed placards linked to the group "Stop World Control," a conspiracy group supporting the belief that "the pandemic is being used to implement worldwide tyranny."

 Banner for anti-ULEZ protest. (Source: Telegram)

The ULEZ has also been connected to the widely debunked Great Reset conspiracy narrative, with some labeling Sadiq Khan the World Economic Forum's (WEF) "messenger boy." 

Screenshot of X post referring to Sadiq Khan as “WEF plant” from known conspiracy theorist. (Source: X)

Logically Facts investigated conspiratorial discourse on X (formerly Twitter) and found 18,000 mentions of the ULEZ alongside the World Economic Forum within the last year. The sentiment associated with this narrative remained largely negative. 

Data from Brandwatch showing audience sentiment over time for “ULEZ” and “WEF” (Source: Brandwatch)

Misleading narratives have attempted to undermine the ULEZ’s efficacy in reducing pollution levels. One misleading video had a cumulative reach of 300,000 on mainstream social media and several conspiratorial Telegram groups. The individual in the video uses an air quality monitor to showcase better air quality on London streets than in underground train stations, thus asserting the fraudulent nature of the ULEZ. However, the video primarily captures scenes from central London, an area already subject to congestion charges and the ULEZ. It fails to compare the air quality in outer London. In addition, it disregards the disparity in time spent by people in underground train stations versus outside.

Influential conspiracy theorists are exploiting the ULEZ initiative to evoke fear. One well-known COVID-19 and climate change denier with over 200,000 followers on X asserted that the climate mitigation initiative is a precursor to more extensive government control, such as dietary restrictions. Decarbonization initiatives are a common source of conspiracy theories. During the Dutch farmers' protests, far-right factions claimed that the WEF aimed to dismantle Dutch farms to exercise control over the Dutch population. These instances underscore a broader pattern wherein bad actors exploit green policy initiatives like the ULEZ to disseminate fear-inducing narratives. 

Conspiracy coverage in the aftermath of the Uxbridge by-election

The ULEZ initiative took center stage following the Uxbridge by-election, drawing attention from politicians and gaining significant coverage in mainstream media. Several politicians and reports attributed the election result to the London Mayor’s ULEZ expansion plans. Logically Facts took a closer look at the conspiratorial coverage surrounding the event. Our findings revealed a notable surge in conspiracy-led narratives on X three days after the election. 

Chris Proops, Logically’s OSINT specialist who has extensively covered mis- and disinformation surrounding the ULEZ, explained, “Mainstream media picked up that ULEZ was a driving factor behind the Conservatives retaining the seat, and fringe conspiracy groups peaked in their anti-ULEZ conspiracy theories writ large.”

Data from Brandwatch shows mentions of “ULEZ” and “WEF.” Mentions peaked on July 24, three days after Uxbridge and South Ruislip election results. (Source: Brandwatch)

Conspiracy theorists and fringe blogs that disseminate disinformation about COVID-19 have shifted their focus towards spreading misleading narratives about climate initiatives, such as the ULEZ scheme. This transition signifies a deliberate effort to harness existing audiences and capitalize on their tendency to believe conspiratorial content. Speaking to Euronews, Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Development (ISD), highlights that similar to the situation during the pandemic, disparate groups and movements have “found a common cause” in climate change. King emphasizes that the difficulties linked to the U.K.'s cost of living crisis are “very easily weaponized, exploited and pivoted towards opposition on a whole host of different issues.”

Also contributing to ULEZ-related conspiracies are “sovereign citizen” groups. The University of Tasmania defines sovereign citizens as those who “see themselves as sovereign and not bound by the laws of the country in which they physically live.” The underlying belief is that they are not subject to the jurisdiction of governmental entities, including laws, taxes, and regulations. Such groups saw a notable increase in membership during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proops’ investigation, with Logically’s OSINT Analyst Maisie Draper, revealed that the U.K.-based conspiracy groups shared a framework designed to empower and encourage followers to avoid paying taxes and debts. This has also become the basis for opposing ULEZ fees. 

Banner for workshop promoting Common Law / Sovereign Citizen beliefs. (Source: Telegram)

Conspiracy theorists also exploited right-wing media outlets’ use of inflammatory language. Using Newswhip, a real-time media monitoring tool, Logically Facts found that two websites covering ULEZ schemes received significant attention online: The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. One Telegraph article titled, “Britain is now an elite dictatorship where majority opinions are crushed,” gained considerable traction on Facebook and X. Notably, the top two accounts on X who shared the article on the platform included a known anti-vax MP and an influential conspiracy theorist. This analysis highlights a symbiotic relationship between right-wing media’s sensationalism and conspiracy theorists’ amplification, both contributing to shaping public opinion.

Data from Newswhip showing Telegraph article interactions over time on X, Facebook, and Pinterest (Source: Newswhip)

From online rhetoric to real-world harm

In the case of the ULEZ, misinformation and online rhetoric have translated into real-world harm. An elusive group called Blade Runners has systematically worked to steal, damage, and destroy over 200 ULEZ cameras in London. Rather than condemning these acts, U.K. conspiracy groups have heaped praise on this vandalism spree, with some calling the act “heroic.” Others have urged people “not to comply” with the ULEZ initiative. 

Proops and Draper’s research shows that Blade Runners are “driven by conspiracy narratives and genuine frustration at the ULEZ scheme.” Proops believes the scheme’s expansion will result in more infrastructure attacks, stating, “It is highly likely that conspiracy narratives around ULEZ will continue to grow and continue to converge on wider theories around the Great Reset, anti-globalist views, and climate change.” Draper concurs, adding, “We’re likely to see continued convergence of conspiracy theorists and those who oppose ULEZ for legitimate means at anti-ULEZ protests, as well as in anti-ULEZ channels online, risking greater infiltration of conspiracy theories within the broader anti-ULEZ movement.”

Organic Misinformation

Valent, a digital agency that addresses online misinformation, discovered that a well-funded online campaign had targeted the ULEZ scheme ahead of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election to weaken support. Logically Facts revealed minimal coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) related to ULEZ narratives. Proops noted, “The CIB referenced by other outlets seems to be targeting ULEZ as a scheme rather than a conspiracy theory.” He also pointed out, “There is often not a lot of CIB relating to conspiracy theories, mostly because it requires money.”

The circumstances surrounding ULEZ are familiar, mirroring that of 15-minute city initiatives, where misinformation arises through organic means, and known bad-faith actors exploit the moment to sow uncertainty and skepticism.  

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