19th December 2016
As more cities move to ban diesels, are some key snags being ignored?
With a number of governments including the UK having encouraged motorists to side with diesel in recent years, some drivers may have been left aghast on learning that four of the world’s major cities have announced that they plan to introduce a complete ban on diesel vehicles in the not-too-distant future1.
The damaging effects of air pollution do indeed need addressing urgently, as the problem is attributed to approximately three million worldwide deaths each year according to the World Health Organization (WHO)2, including 467,000 premature European deaths in the view of the European Environment Agency3. Diesel vehicles ironically emit less CO2 into the atmosphere than petrol equivalents, but they are responsible for pumping out higher levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particular matter4, which are the main culprits when it comes to respiratory problems and other human health effects.
By 2025 at the latest, Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City plan to have completely rid their streets of diesel vehicles, with the French capital’s attempts to clean up its act having started some years ago, the city’s most recent move being to ban cars registered before 1997 from driving on its streets between 8am and 8pm on weekdays5. The Champs-Élysées is now closed to traffic once a month and the mayor has also started to pedestrianize certain parts of the city.
The four named cities boldly announcing their intentions to ban diesel vehicles within the next 8 years might seem revolutionary, but it’s not yet clear whether the bans will cover each city in its entirety or merely certain districts. Besides, the whole concept isn’t exactly new, as Germany6 introduced an anti-pollution law in 2006 requiring drivers wishing to enter the green zone of most German cities to display a special sticker in their windscreens. Almost seventeen years ago, Japan7 also made moves towards banning diesel vehicles.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan must be feeling under a fair bit of pressure to announce a timed diesel ban here, too. Hot on the heels of the four cities revealing their bold plans, speculation was let loose that Mr Khan could expedite the extension of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ)8 beyond London’s boundaries by as soon as 2018, compared to his originally planned time-scale of 2020.
It could be argued that if governments like the UK are keen to start turning the tables on diesel vehicles and encouraging people and businesses to buy and lease hybrid or fully electric vehicles, they’ll need to simultaneously address some key snags:
- Public transport is often viewed as woeful by passengers around the country, as has lately been demonstrated by the rail strikes9 in London and the south. Head to the north of the UK and commuters are often interviewed on local news programmes lamenting overcrowding on trains, or the tardiness or buses. And it’s not like public transport is priced attractively enough or runs suitably regularly to encourage people to give up their cars and rely on it in their daily lives.
- Ultra-low emissions vehicles and in particular electric cars and vans are still relatively expensive10. Okay, let’s ignore the revered Tesla Model S for a moment and look at the more affordable Nissan Leaf. With a theoretical electric range of around 125 miles, which will translate to circa 80 miles in real-world conditions, even major car magazines11 cite its price as a negative, with similarly-sized12 petrol and diesel cars costing at least a few thousand pounds less, without monthly battery fees.
- The charging infrastructure for electric and hybrid vehicles is often found to be inconsistent, with out-of-service charging points a common problem, along with slow network growth and the trend for previously free facilities to now charge a fee. Poor infrastructure is contributing towards the reluctance of fleets to embrace EVs, according to Chago UK13.
Until car manufacturers have made PHEVs and EVs more affordable for average families and small businesses, which OEMs are hopefully all working towards at this very moment, public transport improvements really will need to step up in the meantime.
It also remains to be seen as to what will happen to the huge number of old and even relatively recent diesel vehicles on UK and worldwide roads that suddenly become excluded from major cities. Many motorists, especially in Athens, Mexico City and other comparatively poorer urbanisations, simply won’t be able to afford to buy or lease an environmentally-friendly new car at the drop of a hat, so presumably some kind of scrappage scheme or other incentives will need to be offered to such drivers.
It’s fair to say that more questions currently exist than answers and while it is indeed vitally important that countries address their untenable air pollution crises, it’s also imperative that drivers currently relying on diesel vehicles don’t suddenly find themselves up the creek with no viable alternatives once the bans go live.
Trak Global blog, December 2016
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