To drive or Not to Drive: How the EU countries choose between mobility and ecology

The European countries have realized long ago that climate change is not just a form of a words, but a great challenge to our generation. Much more faster than other world Europe provides green policy to tackle global warming. An essential and effective part in green solutions play the decision to limit emissions of pollutants from cars, vans and trucks, imposing different types of emissions zones in big cities.

CAZ, LEZ, ULEZ: What are them?

These are different titles for geographical areas of cities or towns that have placed restrictions on the use of vehicles, aiming to tackle air pollution. A CAZ is a clean air zone, a LEZ is a low emissions zone. This week London has declared the world’s first ULEZ, or ultra low emissions zone.

In the United Kingdom, CAZs are areas that can decide to use charging as a means of cleaning the air, but don’t have to. If they do impose some form of charging for the most polluting vehicles, they are called a LEZ.

Across Europe there is less clarity about definitions, and LEZ is the term widely used to describe about 250 areas in different cities, with considerable variation.

“Not all LEZs have been created equal,” said Yoann Le Petit from the research group Transport & Environment.

He adds that in Brussels, in terms of coverage, it’s quite a large LEZ, but in terms of ambition level, it’s very low. It started last year, banning Euro 1 cars (registered before 1992). These are very old vehicles; we can hardly see them on the street.

There is a a very high ambition LEZ in Madrid and the one just introduced in Stuttgart, but there is no agreed definition of what an LEZ is, according to Yoann Le Petit.

Where is the most restricted area?

Across the wide Europe, Italy has the most low emissions zones – some of them permanent, many of them seasonal. There are also about 80 in Germany, and 14 each in the Netherlands and the UK. France has also 14 LEZs, but most of them are enforced on a daily basis when there are pollution peaks.

One of the most curious things to come out of the introduction of a LEZ in Sweden in 1996 was the demand from trucking companies to make them bigger.

“Before the introduction, some hauliers were really angry about it,” said Anders Roth, formerly the civil servant in charge of the Gothenburg LEZ.

“Then they realised it wasn’t that bad and the big hauliers who invested in new vehicles realised they could make more money from having a good environmental profile, and they wanted the zone made bigger.”

The world’s first LEZs for vehicles were introduced in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Malmo and Lund in Sweden back in the mid 1990s. The restrictions put in place were targeted at the most polluting diesel trucks and buses in the city centre. Essentially, any vehicle over 3.5 tonnes.

Private cars were not included; they’re still not banned.

“The next step would be to include cars, but that’s a more controversial question in Sweden. We already have congestion charging in Gothenburg and Stockholm, but politicians are reluctant to enforce more regulations,” said Mr Roth.

He believes that because the Swedish cities started earlier, they have had to place fewer restrictions on vehicles to achieve cleaner air.

“We started early and people got used to it and now it’s normal – people would think it would be silly to take it away.”

Do these restrictions matter?

Undoubtedly all the zones are having an impact – but the scale of the difference varies, mainly depending on the type of pollutant. They’ve worked well with diesel particulates which the World Health Organization has linked to cancer.

“They have made a huge difference with all forms of particulate matter,” said Lucy Sadler, who previously led the London Mayor’s air quality team and now runs a website that collect information on how cities are tackling air pollution.

She provides for an example a Milan, which has a low emissions zone and a congestion charge combined. The city reduced NOx by 10%. That’s huge in a city because there’s not that many things you can affect.

“A low emissions zone won’t be a single magic wand, but it can usually be the biggest single measure”, Lucy adds.

However, London has also joined this club of LEZ cities, having the most ambitious plan. Under new rules introduced April 8, polluting vehicles will be discouraged from entering the ULEZ thanks to a daily charge of £12.50 (around $16) for some cars, vans and motorbikes and £100 ($130) for trucks, buses and coaches. The zone will cover the same area as the existing Congestion Charge – collected from drivers in the city center – until 2021, when it will be expanded to cover the area between the major orbital roads known as the North and South Circular.

The ULEZ is the next stage in a plan to clean up London’s air, which started with the so-called T-charge – an extra charge for highly polluting vehicles in the city center – introduced in February 2017. Since then, the number of vehicles entering the zone has fallen by around 11,000 per day, according to official figures, and there has been a 55% increase in emissions-compliant vehicles in the zone. London’s famous red bus fleet is also being updated as part of these efforts, and all 9,200 vehicles will meet or exceed ULEZ standards by October 2020, according to the mayor’s office. As things stand, some 2 million Londoners live in areas where nitrogen dioxide levels are above legal limits set by the European Union. However, these measures will ensure that air pollution will meet legal requirements in six years, according to an analysis by academics at King’s College London.

Apart from London, two cities in Europe are said by observers to be the most restrictive.

In Madrid, there is a zero emissions zone since last November, about the same size as the new London ULEZ.

To drive into the Madrid zone, you have to have authorisation and that is only given to zero emissions vehicles such as electric cars. However, residents are given an exemption that they can continue to use their existing cars until they get a new one.

“Madrid is a small zone but it is very ambitious,” said Yoann Le Petit. “They could already see a NO2 reduction of around 40%. Even outside the LEZ, they saw a slight decrease in traffic, as people know they won’t be able to go through the city centre. They even saw a slight increase in business in the zone.”

Oslo also has very ambitious plans. The city has already removed 700 car parking spaces to create bike lanes and small parks. It also has a zero emissions zone in the centre of the city.

Is it profitable?

According to experts, low emissions zones don’t make money.

“The more you enforce, the more expensive it gets,” said Lucy Sadler.

“If you fine someone £40, it won’t cover the cost to enforce it. They don’t make money. It’s a myth that some organisations like to promote, but it’s absolutely not based on fact.

“Combined congestion charging is different. Across Europe, London is best-practice as the money raised is spent on local public transport. In other countries, it’s not the case.”

What is after ULEZ?

A zero, most likely. The direction is to increase the size of low-emissions zones, and then, over time, to go to zero emissions. This means that only electric cars, or vehicles powered by battery or hydrogen, for example, would be allowed in.

“Zero is a big step from low. It will require serious investment in electric vehicles and hydrogen, and shifts towards more walking, cycling and public transport,” said Kate Laing from C40 Cities.

“In London, the Mayor’s transport strategy is to try to achieve 80% of trips across London in walking, cycling and mass transport by 2040; the ULEZ is feeding into a long-term vision of the city by 2040.”

This thrust is not just because of air quality and not only about London, it’s also down to climate change. Emissions from transport are proving very tough to curb, and will require continued restrictions on internal combustion engines. Less petrol cars now, more fresh air in the future.