The trouble with diesel bans

Stuttgart is an “Autostadt” – a city dominated by Germany’s powerful auto industry. So it came as something of a surprise last week when a court issued an order that will likely force the city – home to Porsche and Daimler – to ban diesel-fueled cars within months.

The city now has to decide whether to ban just the most polluting vehicles, or all diesel cars.

The ruling is the result of a lawsuit by the nongovernmental organization Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe, or DUH), and is part of a broader strategy by environmental groups to use the courts to force action on air pollution.

Another court has also recently ordered Munich to ready a diesel ban.

The push comes amid ongoing findings that German automakers have been manipulating vehicle design and emissions tests in order to make diesel cars seem less polluting than they are.

Developments in this “Dieselgate” saga are spiraling out to the extent that the German government has called for an emergency summit of automakers in Berlin this Wednesday (August 2).

Rush hour traffic jam in Stuttgart (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stein)

Stuttgart has struggled with over-limit air pollution – due in part to its unique micro-climate

The problem in perspective

Based on recent revelations, there are 35 million diesel vehicles now on the road in Europe – sold from 2011 to 2016 – that could be exceeding nitrogen oxide (NOx) limits by at least three times, according to the Brussels-based nongovernmental organization Transport Environment.

According to the European Environmental Agency, nitrogen dioxide emissions caused 75,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2012. A recent study estimated “excess” NOx emissions – that is, emissions beyond what is legally allowed – to account for 11,400 deaths in Europe.

Benjamin Stephan, a mobility campaigner with Greenpeace, says that judges are now stepping in because lawmakers have failed to respond to the unfolding Dieselgate scandal.

“Judges, when they look into it, ask: What would be the best measure to deal with air pollution?” he told DW.

“Diesel bans are the fastest, strongest measure if the cars are exceeding their limits.”

Consumer chaos

But the German government – and the European Commission – disagree.

Alexander Dobrindt sitting in car (picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm)

Dobrindt is among German politicians seeking to prevent diesel bans

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt said after the Stuttgart ruling last week that “blanket driving bans are the wrong political path.”

European Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska wrote to national transport ministers in July expressing concern about the impending bans, saying “policymakers and the industry cannot have an interest in a rapid collapse of the diesel market in Europe as a result of local driving bans.”

Such a collapse, Bieńkowska told European capitals, would deprive automakers of funds to invest in clean vehicles. A coordinated European response is needed, she said.

Many experts agree, and are questioning the effectiveness of diesel ban proposals from both a policy and environmental perspective.

Piecemeal ban: environmentally effective, logistical nightmare

Graham Parkhurst, director of the Center for Transport and Society in the United Kingdom, says that in order for the bans to have a meaningful impact, they would need to only apply to vehicles that have been sold very recently – a logistical nightmare.

“If you were to say only Euro 6 [the latest vehicle standard] were allowed, there would be a big effect on lowering pollution,” he told DW.

But that means only the last one or two years of models. “I think there would be a great difficulty with consumers who bought modern diesel cars expecting them to be usable in an urban context.”

Infographic nitrogen oxide emissions by source in Germany 1990-2015 ENG

He suspects cities will only ban cars earlier than the Euro 4 standard, which are around 10 years old. This, however, would not have much impact in reducing air pollution – mainly because not many of these cars are left on the road.

Results of bans and fees for polluting vehicles have so far been mixed, says Martin Williams, an air quality scientist at Kings College London.

He told DW that banning is most effective when implemented in the long-term – like the 2040 targets announced in London and Paris. “Manufacturers and the public need to have some time to adjust to this kind of thing.”

Both Parkhurst and Williams say that the bans would need to be implemented nationally in order to go smoothly – but this, too, could be a challenge.

In the UK government’s plan for reducing air pollution nationally, local authorities are given a choice of four different levels of vehicle they could institute fees for. “It would be very difficult and confusing if cities had completely different schemes,” says Williams.

The evolution of diesel

So why is all of this happening now? Air pollution in cities, which is caused by a number of factors other than vehicles (see graphic below), has been decreasing in most EU countries.

Infographic: Emission sources for NOx in the EU

Although the national average may be down, presence of the poisonous gas has increased in some city centers – due to more diesel vehicles.

Over the past 20 years, carmakers and governments in Europe have promoted diesel as a low-carbon fuel, because it burns 20 percent more efficiently than petrol.

Governments in countries like Germany and the UK offered tax incentives for people buying diesel cars. Today, half of the 2 million new cars bought in the UK each year are diesel, compared to 18 percent in 2001.

But although the cars may have been better in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, they are worse for air pollution – particularly with regard to NOx.

“In diesel cars, the engine burns at a higher temperature and is more efficient – but because of these higher temperatures, more NOx is being created,” Stephan explained. Yet car companies claimed that through treatment of exhaust, this was under control.

Any climate advantage of diesel cars has since been discredited, he points out – because diesel cars have grown due to the space effective exhaust treatment systems need. “Diesel cars became bigger – and an average diesel car on the road now emits more CO2 than a petrol car.”

Exhaust pipe belching out grey smoke (picture-alliance/Chromorange/Bilderbox)

Diesel has been discredited as a “greener” fuel

Another pollutant being emitted from diesel tailpipes are tiny particles of soot – or “black carbon” – which not only negatively affect human health, but also constitute a greenhouse gas.

Automakers say the latest generation of diesel cars – Euro 6 – is the cleanest yet.

“The latest generation of diesel vehicles will deliver very low pollutant emissions on the road under the new real driving emissions test … and emit significantly less CO2 emissions per kilometer than equivalent petrol-powered vehicles,” a spokesman for ACEA, the European automobile manufacturers association, told DW. 

Political show

Governments want the auto industry to address the pollution issue without harming consumers – this is the main commitment sought from automakers at the Berlin summit.

“The car industry now has a damned responsibility to rebuild trust and fix mistakes it made,” Dobrindt told Germany’s “Bild am Sonntag,” the Sunday edition of the daily “Bild” tabloid.

He added that he will demand an “acceptable offer from the car industry” on how to reduce emissions at the expense of the producers, rather than the consumers.

The German government is hoping that this will prevent diesel bans in cities before any are finalized.

Environmentalists continue to push for the summit to bring a national ban. “Our demands are clear: We are saying that cars not meeting the current standards shouldn’t be allowed to go into cities – and we need a refinement of the rules so cities can easily do this,” said Stephan.

However, he added that despite demonstration of political action at the summit, he’s not expecting any concrete results.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    No clear view

    Thick, polluted air clouds the picturesque of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For several days in a row now, the air pollution has exceeded the maximum permitted levels for particulate matter.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Open for pedestrian traffic only

    On March 17, 2014, Paris officials introduced a driving ban in the city. Vehicles with an even number license plate are banned from entering the city on Monday; and on Tuesday cars with an odd number are banned. It is the first ban in over 15 years. Only electric and hybrid cars or those with more than three people are excluded from the ban.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Cloudy view of Europe’s capital

    Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the seat of the EU and NATO headquarters, is smaller than Paris, but competes equally in terms of air pollution. On Friday, March 14, 2014, even the Eiffel Tower could have disappeared in Brussels’ smog. To improve air quality, an overall driving speed limit of 50 km/h was introduced in the city.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Sarajevo: Worst air in Europe

    In Sarajevo, Bosnia, the concentration of particulate matter is the highest in Europe. The EU allows for an annual average of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. In Sarajevo it is 117 micrograms. The city’s weather conditions are largely to blame. Without regular winds, smog and traffic exhaust accumulate over the city. High gas prices have also led residents to heat more with low-grade coal.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Typical view of Beijing

    In China, pollution levels have been record high for several days this year already. In Beijing, notorious for its thick air, a smog alarm has been established. The levels for the particularly dangerous fine dust particles are about 14 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Top of the list: Ahwaz, Iran

    The city of Ahwaz ranks worst on the WHO’s list when it comes to smog, making it officially the city with the dirtiest air in the world. The reason is the amount of heavy industry in the city, which uses oil, metals and natural gas in its production processes.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Ahead of the rest: Ulan Bator, Mongolia

    Ulan Bator is not only one of the coldest capitals on earth, it’s also the city with the second worst air pollution worldwide. During the winter months, domestic fireplaces with coal and wood contribute up to 70 percent of the smog in the city.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Lahore: dust + traffic = smog

    Air pollution is one of Pakistan’s main environmental concerns at the moment. The situation is particularly dramatic in the country’s second largest city, Lahore. The smog is caused primarily by the high volume of road traffic, rubbish incineration and dust from the surrounding deserts.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Blame the coal in New Delhi

    In the nearly 10 million-strong city of New Delhi, the number of cars has increased from 180,000 to 3.5 million in the last 30 years. Still, it’s the city’s coal powered plants that are causing the biggest problem. They contribute to around 80 percent of the total air pollution in the city.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    Sandstorms, like here in Riyadh, can contribute to smog forming because they increase the amount of particles in the air. In a place like Saudi Arabia, the intense ultra-violet rays also transform transport and industry emissions into ozone.

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    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Deadly air in Dhaka, Bangladesh

    According to a study by the Max-Planck Institute in Mainz, some 15,000 people die every year in Dhaka due to air pollution. Researchers found the world’s highest concentration of sulfur dioxide there.

  • Russland Moskau Waldbrände Smog

    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Thick air in Moscow, Russia

    Even if it looks the same the world over, smog is different, depending on the city. Smog in Moscow, for instance, is characterized by high amounts of hydrocarbons. The westerly winds which regularly blow across Moscow mean that the western part of the city generally has better air quality.

  • Smog über Mexiko-Stadt

    Is Paris Europe’s smog capital?

    Bad location = bad air in Mexico City

    The smog in Mexico City is made worse by the geographical location. The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrocarbons in the air, Mexico City was long considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. The situation is now improving due to new transport policies and certain factories being shutdown.

    Author: Julia Vergin/ Andrea Rönsberg


Article source: http://www.dw.com/en/the-trouble-with-diesel-bans/a-39920465?maca=en-rss-en-ger-1023-xml-atom