Indeed, 19 weeks into 2023, the UK’s main newspapers have published 177 articles on LTNs. Most of them were unfavourable and were published in the Mail (75), the Telegraph (32) or the Times (22).
These attacks are a relatively new phenomenon, emerging after a wave of LTNs was installed across the UK in 2020 during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet for anyone who has spent time observing the climate-sceptic playbook, the tactics on display seem eerily familiar.
Moreover, many of the arguments deployed against LTNs suffer from the same fatal flaw: in the same way that climate sceptics often reject the idea that rapid global heating is a problem that needs addressing, many anti-LTN attacks ignore the damages caused by rising road traffic.
Road traffic consisting of cars, vans and trucks is at the heart of two of the UK’s biggest environmental problems: air pollution and the climate crisis.
One reason for this is that road traffic has risen significantly over recent decades. This traffic is also a significant contributor to the dirty air that continues to plague the UK’s largest cities.
LTNs, low-emissions zones and the shift to electric vehicles are all, at least in part, attempts to address the real and substantial harms caused by road traffic.
Just as importantly, there is good evidence that these interventions are effective.
The Guardian’s Pollutionwatch column recently explained the “clear evidence” that low-emissions zones work. There is also a huge weight of evidence that electric vehicles cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Likewise, the largest-ever review of LTNs, published in January, found they “substantially reduced motor traffic on internal roads, without having much impact on motor traffic on boundary roads”.
On the other hand, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Sun and the Times were all unable to find space in their pages to report the findings.
Instead, these papers have reached a new crescendo in their critical coverage. They have published more anti-LTN articles per day in 2023 than ever before. And they frequently use familiar climate-sceptic tactics to undermine the need for – and specific approach to – taking action.
Using anecdotes to cast doubt on the evidence? Check. Focusing on single datapoints while ignoring the weight of evidence from more comprehensive studies? Of course. Making appeals to social justice that conveniently ignore the available evidence on equity? Yes. Painting problems with current solutions as insurmountable barriers to action? Naturally. Trying to undermine the credibility of data collection methods, by highlighting flaws that scientists are well aware of and already take into account? You bet! Launching personal attacks on scientists carrying out the relevant research? Inevitably, yes. Uncritical reporting of claims pushed by campaign groups that refuse to reveal the source of their funding, while ignoring alternative evidence and explanations? Tick. Platforming small protest groups as if they are representative of wider views? That too.
Nor can we gloss over the bizarre interventions in the UK debate over LTNs by prominent North American climate sceptics such as Steven Milloy and Jordan Peterson, or the other direct links between opposition to LTNs and climate scepticism. There have also been attempts to hijack anti-LTN protests with “conspiracy paranoia” and even far-right activism.
Just as climate sceptics followed in the footsteps of those working to oppose controls on cigarette smoking, so too have a vocal minority used similar tactics to sow doubt over the impacts and effectiveness of LTNs, all while failing to acknowledge the harms that LTNs seek to address.
While these attacks are bound to continue, their success is far from guaranteed.