Four cities announce landmark ban on diesel vehicles

Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris will phase out the technology over the next decade, while announcing commitments on climate and air quality.

Electric buses ply the streets of Mexico City, one of four urban areas to announce a ban on diesel vehicles, 1 December. (Jasper Carlberg)

MEXICO CITY — Diesel vehicles on city streets will soon be a thing of the past in Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris. The leaders of those four cities last week announced a sweeping ban, set to take place by 2025, at an international mayors summit on climate change.

The move comes as cities worldwide are taking a harder look at how they can reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions in the transportation sector, and by extension improve their air quality. The four mayors signed a declaration focused on air quality and made clear that their intention was to send a signal to industry.

“Mayors have already stood up to say that the climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo during the announcement Friday at the biennial C40 Mayors Summit. “Today, we also stand up to say we no longer tolerate air pollution and the health problems and deaths it causes — particularly for our most vulnerable citizens. Big problems like air pollution require bold action, and we call on car and bus manufacturers to join us.”

Hidalgo and other mayors made the announcement as the French capital suffers its worst winter air pollution in a decade, according to broadcaster France24. A combination of vehicle emissions and forest fires have left a stagnant cloud of particulate matter over the city, smudging views of the Eiffel Tower. This week, Hidalgo tweeted an image of a smoggy Paris with the message: “#Paris today. Proof that it’s necessary to reduce the presence of cars in downtown #pollution.”

[See: Reconnecting urban planning with health and well-being]

The World Health Organization attributes 3 million deaths annually to outdoor air pollution, the vast majority of those claiming the lives of people who live in cities. Soot from diesel engines — long valued for their high fuel economy — is a major contributor to the problem. The WHO estimates that 92 percent of the world’s population lives in places exceeding the agency’s standards for safe levels of air pollution.

In July, the WHO and the U. N. Environmental Programme launched the Breathe Life campaign with support from the Norwegian government. Its goal is to cut in half deaths related to air pollution by 2030, in support of the new Sustainable Development Goals development framework.

Major health impact

Smog has become as much a part of Parisian daily life as cafés and baguettes. Last year, the City of Light briefly topped the world’s worst cities for air quality, beating out even perennial offenders such as New Delhi. According to health experts, diesel emissions were a main culprit; most vehicles on Parisian streets are diesels.

“Our goal is to ultimately remove all cars from the centre of Athens in the years to come.”

Giorgos Kaminis
Mayor of Athens

[See: After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon]

Hidalgo already has banned all cars manufactured before 1997. Last year, the city embarked on its first car-free day, shutting down nearly a third of the city to automobiles. The experiment yielded rapid results, with nitrogen-dioxide levels dropping by 40 percent. according to monitoring site Airparif. This year, Paris embarked on monthly car-free Sundays in a smaller area that includes the iconic Champs Elysées boulevard. And it repeated last year’s larger “journée sans voiture” again in September, this time covering nearly every part of the capital.

Across the English Channel, London also is targeting diesels. Those standards serve as the basis of the capital’s low-emission zone, where drivers of diesel cars must meet stringent E. U. standards or pay a daily charge. Should the United Kingdom go forward with withdrawing from the European Union and opt not to follow the E. U.’s lead on environmental regulations, however, continuing to peg London’s efforts to standards on the continent may not be legal.

“We want the E. U. environmental regulations to be transposed into U. K. law, as they are now, and we should be seeking to ratchet that up,” London Deputy Mayor Shirley Rodrigues told Citiscope. “I don’t know, going forward, if we would have the power to divorce ourselves from the rest of the U. K. if we wanted to go further and faster.”

While Paris has been getting much attention for its shockingly bad air quality, Mexico City also is a well-known poster child for smog. The Mexican capital’s pollution was so atrocious in the 1980s and 1990s that locals compared living in the city to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Anecdotal accounts describe birds suddenly falling dead out of the sky.

Since then, there have been vast improvements. Officials have zoned out refineries, prohibited leaded gas, and built out a public transit network with a much-lauded bus rapid transit system and bike-share programme. Today, a clear day with views of the snow-capped volcanoes at the edge of Mexico City is no longer a rarity.

[See: Health is a prerequisite for sustainable urban development]

But increasingly, those gains are suffering setbacks. In March, the city enacted a “Phase 1” smog alert that kept all cars off the streets one day per week, according to a rotating license-plate scheme. A month later it doubled down and put the ban in effect for cars two days per week, affecting some 10 million vehicles. Increased amounts of ozone were to blame for the air-quality issue, and cars contribute up to 90 percent of the city’s ozone.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera insists that the diesel ban is part of a larger strategy to cope with the issues dragging down his metropolis. “It is no secret that in Mexico City, we grapple with the twin problems of air pollution and traffic,” he said. “By expanding alternative transportation options like our bus rapid transport and subway systems, while also investing in cycling infrastructure, we are working to ease congestion in our roadways and our lungs.”

Car-free cities?

At the C40 summit, Mancera cited the city’s first 30 electric-vehicle charging stations as the harbinger of a greener future for vehicular circulation in the perpetually traffic-clogged city. While 30 stations is still minor in a city with millions of gas-powered cars, Mexico City may stand to learn from its peers around the world.

Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen proudly pointed to the world’s highest density of electric cars and plans to establish a car-free city centre. Cape Town’s Patricia de Lille used the C40 bully pulpit to announce Africa’s first fleet of electric buses, which will be manufactured by Chinese company BYD at a plant in South Africa.

[See: How Ljubljana turned itself into Europe’s ‘green capital’]

Indeed, mayoral interest does not appear to end at diesel-free cities: Car-free cities could be the endgame for many.

“Our goal is to ultimately remove all cars from the centre of Athens in the years to come,” said Mayor Giorgos Kaminis. “I support the bold ambition of the Air Quality Declaration and call on our partners in the national government to implement their commitments based on the international climate action agreements and to join our common effort to clean the air that we breathe.”

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