Photo: Leo Hidalgo CC BY

Editorial: Ban dirty diesel cars

Between 1990 and 2015 the share of diesel car registrations in the EU increased dramatically, from 15 to more than 50 per cent – a change that in most countries has been stimulated by national financial incentives such as lower excise duties for diesel than for petrol. The lower diesel tax favours the use and ownership of diesel cars and creates an incentive to drive more kilometres. Another reason is the weaker EU air pollution standards for diesel cars, in effect allowing diesels to emit much more toxic particles (PM) and nitrogen oxides.

As a result, European citizens and ecosystems are being exposed to higher levels of air pollution. Last year the European Environment Agency estimated the number of premature deaths in the EU linked to PM2.5, NOx and ozone at 436,000, 68,000 and 16,000, respectively. Emissions from transport in general, and from diesel vehicles in particular, contribute significantly to this death toll.

Binding air quality standards that are set to protect peoples’ health are frequently being exceeded. The Commission is currently pursuing infringement actions for excessive levels of PM10 against 16 member states, and two of these cases (against Bulgaria and Poland) have been brought before the European Court of Justice. Legal action has also been initiated on nitrogen dioxide (NO2), so far involving twelve member states.

National governments may eventually be ordered to pay heavy fines for these transgressions, and in many cases it will be the cities that will have to take action to resolve the problem. In addition, many cities are being brought to local courts by environmental groups. As a result, a number of cities are now moving to phase out diesel cars, the first step usually being to restrict the use of, or even ban, the oldest and dirtiest diesel cars.

To mark the fact that two years have now passed since the Dieselgate scandal dramatically exposed both the dirtiness of diesel cars and cheating by the car industry, Transport & Environment on 18 September published a new report: “Diesel – the true (dirty) story”.

The report makes clear, among other things, that diesel cars not only pollute the air but also emit more climate-change emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) than other cars, thus refuting carmakers’ claim that diesel cars are needed to meet their CO2-reduction targets.

Introducing low-emission zones and banning diesel cars from cities are good for air quality and are necessary to protect people’s health, but they are not good enough. The only way to achieve the dual targets of good air quality and limiting global warming in line with the Paris Agreement is a total phase-out of cars with traditional combustion engines.

The future may very well belong to electric and hydrogen/fuel-cell vehicles, provided of course that they are fed by clean, renewable sources of energy. But in densely populated cities even zero-exhaust-emission vehicles may not be enough to completely resolve poor air quality, due to remaining emissions of toxic particles from brakes, tyres and road surfaces. These cities will need clean and well-functioning public transport systems (e.g. buses, trains and underground) and much more walking and cycling.

Christer Ågren



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