Operationalising just sustainability: a comparative analysis of justice discourses around low emission zones in London and Brussels

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


The increasing evidence base and public concern on the health effects of exposure to air pollution, combined with stricter environmental legislation, are forcing local governments to take drastic measures. Although air pollution has often been framed as an apolitical ‘technical’ issue that can be solved through technological intervention, drawing on universal values or scientific knowledge with respect to liveability and public health, notions of equity and justice have increasingly become part of the public and policy debate. This becomes evident when looking at a popular policy instrument in Europe, the low emission zone (LEZ), which wants to improve air quality in city centres by banning the most polluting vehicles based on their emission standard. In various cities LEZs have proven highly contentious, with heated debates focusing on their effectiveness, desirability, and fairness. While supporters think it is a fair “polluter pays” instrument, benefiting more deprived communities that are more exposed but contribute less to air pollution, critical perspectives have implicated LEZs in unevenly constraining spatial accessibility and placing disproportional financial burdens on disadvantaged socio-economic groups. In this presentation I use low emission zones as an exemplary case to shed further light on the inclusion of social justice concerns in the broader discourse on urban sustainability. Through more than 30 semi-structured interviews with policymakers and stakeholders in London and Brussels, two European capitals that have implemented a LEZ, I critically analyse the interpretation and mobilisation of interconnected environmental and transport justice concerns. I uncover how different forms and notions of justice are operationalised, and which role justice concerns play in policymaking and contestation. The analysis shows the relative, cultural, political, and place-bound nature of justice, and the implicit and often convenient spatial and temporal delineation of the “community of justice”. I argue that by recognizing different valid interpretations of justice and fairness, making more room for democratic debate on normative values underpinning policies, and balancing restrictive measures, incentives and support appropriately, greater stakeholder agreement and public acceptability can be reached, which is vital to realise just transitions in the future.
Period27 Jul 2022
Event titleAESOP Congress 2022: Space for Species: Redefining Spatial Justice
Event typeConference
LocationTartu, Estonia
Degree of RecognitionInternational