German cities ban old diesel cars. But — is the air any cleaner?

Berlin plans to ban old diesel cars from eleven of its most polluted streets in November, following Darmstadt, Hamburg and Stuttgart in their efforts to reduce NOx emissions. The ban has, however, a considerable opposition across Germany; many people believe it’s pointless while businesses fear unnecessary costs.

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Brückenstraße is one of the streets in Berlin that older diesel vehicles won’t be able to drive on anymore.

The diesel ban in Berlin will affect cars and trucks up to and including EURO 5 emission category. These cars — there are around 200.000 of them (every sixth car) — are no longer allowed to enter a combined three kilometres of roads in the German capital.

The city hopes that the prohibitive measure will help combat the levels of nitrogen dioxide and put them below the admissible level of 40 milligrams per cubic meter of air. In 2018, the average concertation of the pollutant in Berlin has been recorded at 49 milligrams.

What is EURO standard

If a car wants to drive on European roads it has to meet certain emission standards. The European Union has first introduced them in 1992. Five sets of standards have followed since, each being more stringent as the previous. They are listed below (and when they’ve become mandatory):

EURO 1 since 31 December 1992

EURO 2 since 1 January 1997

EURO 3 since 1 January 2001

EURO 4 since 1 January 2006

EURO 5 since 1 January 2011

EURO 6 since 1 January 2015

“Ban won’t change anything. The pollution will just move”

One of the dirtiest parts of the city is a 300-meter chunk of Brückenstraße that bridges popular Alexanderplatz and the district of Kreuzberg, south of the river Spree.

Andrea works in the local bakery and knows the narrow and often heavily congested street very well. “I haven’t noticed that the air is more polluted here. I am more annoyed by the noise,” she admits.

She also drives a diesel car — and has been so for the past 20 years — but hers is a relatively new one and is not being scrutinized for excessively emitting NOx gases.

“It might happen that there will be fewer people to the bakery because of the diesel ban. People might also have problems in their everyday lives — leaving kids three blocks from the school instead of at the entrance,” she gives an example.

A short walk from her bakery is a typical German beer house. The older men, sitting at the bar, point out that the road outside is “the dirties part of Berlin”. Brückenstraße is in fact among the most polluted; in 2018 it had the ninth highest level of nitrogen dioxide particles.

The men are, nevertheless, not particularly excited about the diesel ban. “They won’t solve anything that way. People will simply make a detour, and then you’ll have congestion in other parts, together with pollution,” they predict.

Berlin is one of eleven German cities tasked with implementing driving restrictions within city limits as a way to combat high levels of NOx pollution. Until October 2019, however, only three cities have imposed the measures: Hamburg, Darmstadt and Stuttgart.

Hamburg: restrictions work but not good enough

The second-largest German city barred diesel cars from two of its streets (2,3 kilometres) in May 2018, almost immediately after the decision from the country top court.

Similarly to Berlin, the ban applies to all diesel cars except for new EURO 6 models. More than half of 320.000 Hamburg-registered diesel cars are affected.

It is worth pointing out, though, that the city allows a plethora of exceptions; for the residents of the affected areas and their visitors, emergency and police vehicles, delivery services and taxi drivers, among others.

And even those who are not — under any circumstances — allowed to drive on the two streets might still want to tempt the gods since fines for violators are relatively low — car drivers pay 20 euro if they get caught and truck companies 75 euro.

Results so far are mixed. The levels of nitrogen dioxide have indeed fallen (on one street from 47 to 41, and the other from 46 to 44 milligrams per one cubic meter of air) but are still above the admissible volumes.

Environmental organizations maintain that the diesel ban is necessary, but “it should have been broadened and coupled with stricter control measures”.

Darmstadt: more than 3000 violators in a couple of months

A comparable interdiction has been enforced in Darmstadt, a smaller city south of Frankfurt. There too the diesel ban applies on only two streets, together comprising a little more than one kilometre of the city’s roads.

The level of air pollutants has fallen, according to Focus.de, quoting Darmstadt authorities.

The city has also recorded a considerable number of violators — at least 3000 of them have driven a EURO 5 (or older) diesel vehicle where these cars have been outlawed.

Stuttgart: Authorities says ban works but residents are not happy about it

Considering the limited extent of the diesel prohibition in Darmstadt and Hamburg, only Stuttgart has enforced a noticeable ban thus far.

Around 80 milligrams in one cubic meter of air has been the average level of NOx in Stuttgart in the last year, double the admissible levels for the European Union.

The city, home to German automaker giants Daimler and Porsche, barred diesel cars up to and including EURO 4 emission category which makes them mostly older than eight years.

The environmentalists at the Deutsche Umwelthilfe have demanded that the state government of Baden Württemberg, of which Stuttgart is a capital, introduces zonal driving restrictions for EURO 5 engines as well.

The state officials, on the other hand, contest that a blanket ban is not necessary since the existing restrictions have yielded satisfying results. “We have decreased the values from 80 milligrams to 50–56 milligrams,” said Fritz Kuhn, Stuttgart’s mayor (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen).

Stuttgart is, in fact, an above-average polluted city, partly because it lies in the basin. In recent years, the levels of nitrogen dioxide have been twice as high as the European Union’s threshold of 40 milligrams per cubic meter of air.

The trend is positive, however. In 2015, the city’s average level of NOx has been at 87 milligrams, in 2017 73 milligrams and last year 71 milligrams.

Nothing has changed

Stuttgart’s residents doubt the ban is indeed necessary. “Nothing has changed. There are still traffic jams, and the public transport is not any cheaper,” claims Gasper Soban who runs a car business.

He, too, owns an old diesel car that he still uses, relying on the fact that diesel ban controls are not heavily enforced. He is an exception, though, since many owners sold their unfitting cars.

Official data shows that the share of registered diesel cars, that do not meet EURO 5 standards, has fallen from 7,1 percent to 3,9 percent since the start of 2019.

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Gasper Soban from Stuttgart thinks that diesel ban is not necessary.

“Old diesels in Germany are well maintained. But there is not a lot of other options besides selling the car below the market price — otherwise, nobody will buy them in and around Stuttgart,” Soban adds.

He believes that older citizens might bear the costs the most. “Lots of them bought an expensive diesel Mercedes before retiring but are now unable to drive one. People are not happy.”

Steve Staresinic, an American tax consultant in Stuttgart, draws attention to the costs some companies, particularly in the delivery business, might have.

“Those who have had old diesel vans in their fleet had to buy new ones. Even more worrisome is a possible EURO 5 ban since some of these vehicles are only two years old.

The same is true for the citizens. More than a thousand of them have an almost new diesel car which costs up to 50.000 euro but they won’t be able to use it anymore,” he points out.

Staresinic regularly sights older delivery vans on the streets of Stuttgart. “People take risks”.

“The authorities have banned diesel cars before they were able to introduce proper measures, such as improvements of public transport and cycling infrastructure or implement park & ride services,” Staresinic continues.

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Across Europe, (old) diesel cars are being forced out

German cities are not the only ones campaigning against polluting diesels. London, for instance, has recently introduced a so-called Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), covering London’s city centre.

Diesel cars that do not meet EURO 6 standards and petrol cars up to and including EURO 4 are being charged 12.5 pounds (14.5 euro) to enter the area. There has been an 11-percentage drop in the total number of cars entering central London, BBC reported.

London plans to expand the ULEZ to a significantly larger area in 2021.

Brussels has decided to gradually force out diesel cars. In 2019, the Belgium capital has barred entrance to diesel cars of up to EURO 2 category which are 20 years old by now. They plan to ban all diesel cars with the exception of EURO 6 until 2025.

Meanwhile, only EURO 4 or newer cars are allowed in the centre of Paris during the day. There are an estimated 800.000 vehicles (from five million) that don’t pass the test. The fine for violators is 68 euro.

Other European cities don’t want to stay behind. Milan, Rome, Athens, Barcelona, and Madrid introduced bans of varying intensity as well.

The Spanish capital, for example, has denied access to the city centre for diesel cars, registered before 2006, and petrol cars, registered before 2000. The number of cars has reportedly decreased anywhere between 6 to 14 percent, in some streets up to a third on the first day of the ban, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported.

In 2030 the combined number of cars, affected by Europe-wide city bans, will amount to 12,6 million, Bloomberg reported. There are around 300 million registered vehicles in the European Union.

The number does not include all those car owners who daily commute to work from outside the cities.

Europe has been the world’s biggest diesel car market since the 80s. Since the “dieselgate” scandal in 2015, however, the share of newly registered diesel cars is plummeting.

THE END for all of them?

If one were to look at plans some countries have for the following 30 years, one might rightly anticipate an end for all cars with internal combustion.

France and Great Britain have scheduled a complete ban on conventional cars for 2040, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Iceland and Netherland for 2030 while the most ambitious Norwegians want to phase them out in six years.

Context: How the war on diesel car started

Germany has been a champion of diesel technology since the eighties. The country and its car manufacturers have invested heavily in diesel research, seeking to leverage on the increased efficiency and durability of diesel-powered cars.

The collective opinion has changed dramatically following the 2015 “dieselgate” scandal which has exposed Volkswagen scheme of manipulating with nitrogen oxide emissions.

These pollutants are not as potent greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide but have rather more immediate and local ramifications on the air quality.

Environmental groups have demanded that the German cities ban certain types of fossil fuel engines from their streets. Local authorises pushed back, arguing diesel ban should not be on the table — but with little avail.

In 2018, the federal administrative court has ruled in favour of the environmentalists and instructed cities to introduce driving bans if other efforts to push the levels of nitrogen oxides below the admissible limit fail.

Written by

Content strategist and journalist based in Berlin

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