At midnight on 31 May, Hamburg banned diesel vehicles on sections of two main roads.
The move marks the start of a wave of similar bans across Europe. But experts query whether such city-level measures are the best way to tackle the vehicles’ adverse effects.
Starting a trend
The ban, introduced by Hamburg in an effort to reduce dangerous levels of air pollution, is Germany’s first, and one of Europe’s most extensive to date.
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Julia Poliscanova, an air quality expert at the Brussels NGO Transport and Environment, said other German cities are likely to follow suit.
And, she said, “The signal it sends to both drivers and consumers in the city… and to Europe, indeed, is one to say, ‘Well, we can’t really have these dirty diesels on our roads any more.’”
More European cities are set to adopt bans. In the next year London plans to bar both diesel and petrol engine cars from certain streets. From 2024, Rome will block diesel cars in its city centre, and Paris plans to remove both petrol and diesel engine cars from 2030.
Since revelations in 2015 that emissions from some German-manufactured diesel vehicles exceed legal limits by more than a factor of ten, efforts have been made to reduce the numbers of them in cities. Air pollution, in particular nitrogen dioxide emissions, causes thousands of premature deaths each year.
Hamburg’s ban follows a federal court ruling earlier this year confirming it is legal for cities to ban diesel vehicles. The environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe have brought legal complaints against 28 German towns and cities for exceeding the EU-permitted limits on pollution.
A last resort
But such city-level bans are a sign of desperation, Poliscanova believes. “Cities simply don’t have any other means to control pollution,” she said.
While the level of pollutants emitted by diesel vehicles can be limited if the cars are redesigned, this power doesn’t lie with city governments, but with national legislators.
In Germany, the national government has so far proved reluctant to require car manufacturers to modify their vehicles.
But, as Poliscanova argues, banning diesel vehicles in individual cities only serves to move the problem elsewhere. Diesel drivers who realise they are no longer able to drive in their own cities simply sell their cars, she said. They are then sold on in places where no such ban exists.
Even if Western European governments regulate, such sales might see cars heading to Eastern European states where laws are more lax.
“What is really important is to avoid the situation in which these vehicles which are banned in Western Europe are simply heading East,” Poliscanova said.
The ultimate solution, she added, has to be continent-wide. Without a European level agreement, a tonic for Hamburg could become a new poison for Sofia or Bucharest.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Martin aka Maha)