A dead end for fossil fuel in Europe’s city centers

Elisabeth Behrmann
Bloomberg News

Ever since Volkswagen AG was found out in 2015 to be rigging engines, harmful car emissions have come under intense scrutiny from consumers and regulators. Municipalities in Europe have been pushing to get diesel cars, in particular, out of inner cities. Come 2024, a diesel car won’t get you around Paris or Madrid as the capitals ban all passenger vehicles running on the fuel.

A few years later, all combustion drivers in and around Barcelona, London and Rome reliant on cars will lose access. All told, some 24 European cities accounting for 62 million people are banning diesels over the next decade, including 13 cities that will strike off all combustion cars in a bid to stop failing emissions limits.

Limited bans on older diesels in places like Paris have already prompted consumers to desert diesel in droves.

It’s an inconvenient future that’s already a creeping reality with bans in Madrid, Hamburg and Paris on older diesel cars, leaving many consumers with little choice but to invest in hybrids or battery cars, and upending the car’s promise of providing unlimited mobility for the masses.

“Many residents of the affected cities, but also many commuters, cannot buy a new car overnight,” said Andreas Radics, a partner at Berylls Consultancy. “A ban on driving cars in cities without training the other modes of transport is an expensive problem to which neither politicians nor local authorities have yet responded sufficiently.”

Around 12.6 million cars in Europe are affected by restrictions that already apply in local authorities or are to be introduced by 2030, according to Berylls. The number only includes cars registered currently to city residents, leaving out millions of commuters.

Limited bans on older diesels in places like Paris, Madrid and Hamburg have already prompted consumers to desert diesel in droves. Registrations have slid to 36% of total sales across Europe in 2018, down from more than half in 2015, the year VW’s emissions cheating crisis.

Buyers have been sticky on shifting to electric vehicles, favoring gasoline instead in light of patchy charging infrastructure, with less than 3% of sales making up hybrid or battery cars last year. It’s a sobering foretaste for carmakers like Volkswagen AG, Renault SA and BMW AG betting on the electric shift and trying to gauge future buying behavior.

In December, Madrid began restricting access to gas-powered vehicles made prior to 2000 and diesel vehicles prior to 2006.Come 2020, older diesel and gas-powered cars won’t be allowed to enter at all.

The tug of war between clean air in cities and people’s mobility extends around the globe. In the U.S., Seattle plans to ban sales of new combustion cars by 2030. California, home to electric-car leader Tesla Inc., introduced draft legislation in late 2018 to scratch sales of new fossil-fuel burning vehicles by 2040 statewide. A range of other states have similar plans from 2050.