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As Nations Shift Toward Low-Emission Vehicles, Roadblocks Remain

Monday, August 21, 2017

Robert Kelsey

Associate Editor, Environmental Law Reporter

As reported previously in the Environmental Law Reporter's Weekly Update, several countries have expressed their desire to move away from vehicles powered by diesel and gas in recent months. Most recently, the British government committed to ban the sale of diesel and gas vehicles from 2040 to curb rising levels of nitrogen oxide. The government said the move, which will include hybrid vehicles, was needed because of the negative impacts of air pollution on human health. The government was urged to introduce taxes for vehicles to enter clean air zones, but the government sees the option as a last resort. Britain’s air quality package also includes $1.3 billion in ultra-low-emission vehicles, including investing nearly $130 million in the United Kingdom’s charging infrastructure and funding the “plug-in car” and “plug-in grant” schemes.

An electric car charges up at a station in Newcastle, England (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, France expects to cease the sale of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced the proposal as part of the country’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement. Minister Hulot stated that financial assistance would be available to lower income drivers who cannot afford to replace their gas vehicles. French car manufacturer PSA Group said the plan aligns with its goal of having hybrid or electric vehicles make up 80% of its fleet by 2023.

France and Britain are not alone. Norway announced its plan to eliminate petro-powered vehicles by 2025. Currently, 24% of all vehicles sold in Norway are already battery-powered. The Netherlands has yet to formally set a target for the switch but it could be as early as 2025. India—still a developing country—wants to end the sale of internal combustion engines as well as convert or replace all other vehicles on the road by 2030.

Some cities want to make the switch earlier than their national governments. The mayors of Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, and Paris announced plans to take diesel cars and vans off their roads by 2025. Paris attributes most of the city’s problems with smog on fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

However, the switch to cleaner vehicles will not be easy—especially for several major economies.

In Britain, concerns have been raised about whether it will have enough charging points for the new generation of cars. Approximately only 4% of new car sales in the United Kingdom are electric vehicles, meaning the marketplace does not demand the installation of new charging stations. Another issue is the ability to produce sufficient energy to handle the increased demand for electricity as well as the costs associated with providing the sources of this energy. The National Grid predicts that Britain will become more reliant on imported electricity. Currently, the United Kingdom imports about 10% of its electricity, but it is estimated that the figure could rise to around one-third, which would raise concerns about costs and energy security. Many factors can affect this concern, chief among them advances in battery technology, which would affect how much new energy is needed to charge a vehicle.

Apart from infrastructural challenges, some countries’ goals have been met with resistance and public skepticism.

In Germany, politicians and car manufacturers agreed to overhaul the engine software on 5.3 million diesel cars to cut pollution. The German auto industry, which is the country’s largest exporter and employs 800,000 people, has taken heat since Volkswagen was caught cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests two years ago. The German government sees this software overhaul as a compromise that will win back consumers’ trust and usher in a new culture of environmental responsibility amongst carmakers.

For some, however, these environmental goals are not enough. The German Social Democrats Party (SPD) has called for Europeanwide vehicle quotas to accelerate the shift toward electric cars. The SPD believes that without quotas for electric cars, the European Union could miss its carbon dioxide emission targets, and that an obligatory minimum number of electric cars for Germany and Europe would give car makers incentives to develop new technologies. A spokesperson for the Christian Democrats, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stated that the plan reminds him of a ". . . planned economy and that has never been successful."

Even without the influence of European governments, the sale of diesel vehicles is in a downturn. German diesel sales dropped 19% in the month of April. This trend was surprising, as European countries kept taxes on diesel fuel lower than gasoline to promote diesel for environmental reasons. One possible reason for declining diesel demand in Europe is that while diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than gas engines, they produce more nitrogen oxides, which have been linked to asthma and smog that blankets major cities.

With considerations as sensitive as the economy and infrastructure, there are no easy answers to the problem. Governments will have to make tough calls about how to tackle the issue of vehicle emissions. When it comes to the nations of Europe, a concerted effort will be needed in order to achieve their goals.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.