In response to congestion and high local pollution cities are increasingly using vehicle access restrictions to limit the number of cars on their roads and ensure those which grossly pollute are not allowed in. Following the dieselgate emissions scandal (that exposed the failure of modern diesel vehicles to adequately control toxic fumes when operated on the road), there is a new focus on deploying Low Emission Zones and Diesel Bans.  Today there are around 40 million grossly polluting diesel cars and vans on the EU’s roads but national vehicle approval authorities remain reluctant to mandate manufacturers to implement fixes.  As a consequence cities have become the last line of defense in the battle to ensure the air is clean and to address the public health crisis that is causing around half a million premature deaths per year. London has recently announced a toxicity charge while Oslo, Paris, Madrid, Athens and lately Rome have pledged to ban diesel cars altogether in the years to come.

Germany’s highest civil court has recently confirmed that German city councils have the right to ban dirty diesel cars from city centres to bring air pollution down to legally required limits. The Federal Administrative Court (BVG) said on 27 February that cities are entitled to ban the most polluting engines if there are no other effective measures to reduce pollution; in fact they must do so if that is the most effective measure to reduce pollutants, particularly nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

This paper analyses low emission zones and congestion charges in 11 European cities: Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Milan, Oslo, Paris and Stockholm.  There are large differences in the environmental zones implemented so far. Some policies permanently exclude polluting vehicles and are intended to drive modal shift to cleaner transportation options. Others are of temporary nature in response to hazardous air pollution episodes.

One of the key weaknesses of measures introduced to date is the blanket exemption for Euro 6 vehicles.  Less than 10% of new Euro 6 diesels on sale today meet the EU emission limits. Other 90% still exceed the nitrogen oxides limit by 4 to 5 times and some models up to 10 times, notably  from carmakers such as Renault, Fiat and Opel. These diesels should either be upgraded to comply with the limits or not allowed in cities – only the vehicles that meet the pollution standards on the Road should be exempted from bans.

Central and eastern European cities face a particularly acute situation. With many western cities considering outright diesel bans, it is very likely that the 40 million grossly polluting diesels – without adequate fixes – will end up on the roads of cities such as Warsaw, Prague and Sofia.

In order to ensure low emission zones and diesel bans are fully effective cities should:

– Avoid blanket exemptions of Euro 6 diesels and instead only allow vehicles that are clean in real-world driving, including those fixed. The inclusion/exclusion criteria should be based on vehicles’ real-world emissions (RDE) that are now widely available.

– Use remote sensing linked to number plate recognition to police compliance, and identify individual grossly polluting models and ensure these are repaired or cannot enter the city.

– Provide high quality public transport as well as infrastructure for active, shared and zero emission transport modes.

Cities are now at the forefront of the fight to tackle urban air pollution and the legacy of dieselgate. Through better design of the local access restrictions they can succeed in removing polluting vehicles from city centers and encourage cleaner alternatives.  As Madrid’s “Plan A” low emission zone poignantly reminds us, there is no Plan B if we fail to make our cities livable and clean.


Originally published by Transport & Environment (March 2018) at


This analysis was carried out by Petar Georgiev, T&E’s research assistant between October 2017 – February 2018 Air Quality Report_FINAL_12032018 NEW.pdf – %5B%7B%22num%22%3A707%2C%22gen%22%3A0%7D%2C%7B%22name%22%3A%22XYZ%22%7D%2C0%2C82%2Cnull%5D

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