Why you should care
Because a fuel and its money aren’t so easily parted.
People love a wonder drug, whether it’s for their health or their consumer habits. And not that long ago, diesel fuel was the wonder drug: In the 1990s, diesel mania boomed through Europe’s cities, the hip new fuel that reduced emissions and was more efficient — and thus cheaper — than regular gasoline. You know what else people love? A fall from grace. That’s diesel too. But what if the one falling threatens to take others down too? Then it gets more complicated.
According to the World Health Organization, diesel exhaust is carcinogenic, and Volkswagen’s supposedly clean diesel cars had been cheating on emissions tests and weren’t actually clean at all. Retribution has been swift: In Germany, diesel car sales have fallen nearly 20 percent in the past year, and diesel cars from the past 10 years will need costly retrofits even in places where they aren’t completely banned.
Which brings us to the bans: Already this year, German courts decided that cities have the right to ban diesel cars from their streets, while Copenhagen has banned diesel cars from 2019, Rome from 2024 and Paris — although admittedly Paris is banning both diesel- and gas-fueled engines — from 2030. London charges a heightened fee for those using older diesel cars, though it hasn’t yet set a date for a proposed ban on them.
It [a ban on diesel vehicles] draws a line in the sand; it makes politicians seem decisive.
Adam Wentworth, Climate Action
“Cities are finding themselves in a tight spot, particularly when it comes to meeting air-quality standards … and diesel cars are one of the key reasons,” says Anup Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation. “There aren’t a whole lot of short-term measures that they can take.” Bans offer a way to bring emissions levels down quickly, a key selling point for city governments whose constituents are suddenly keenly aware of the dangers of air pollution.
But, Bandivadekar explains, banning diesel may not be that easy — even where court rulings allow it. Across Europe, diesel cars are losing market share rapidly as consumers aren’t sure what the rules are or will be surrounding their use. Still, in Germany particularly, he says, diesel has long been king — and attacks on diesel may be seen as an attack on German industry (if for the sake of German lung capacity) and thus greeted with hostility. The transportation industry may also face a major disruption. While a shift away from diesel is inevitable, it’s happening much faster than anticipated, and car manufacturers may not be ready to step in and meet demand — causing what Bandivadekar describes as “somewhat of a slow-motion train wreck already.”
Which is not to say diesel deserves a second chance. Testing across Europe, where 60 percent of diesel cars are sold, has found that pretty much all diesel vehicles, no matter the manufacturer, have problems with high emissions. But bans may also be serving political interests, says Adam Wentworth of Climate Action. “It draws a line in the sand; it makes politicians seem decisive,” he says. And it’s an action many mayors or municipalities can take unilaterally, without waiting for federal laws to change, as awareness of air pollution — and demands that citizens be protected from it — increases in cities across the globe. “People are very aware that it’s out there and causing health problems for people,” Wentworth says.
And there may be options other than bans to guide consumers toward cleaner choices. In Norway, for example, 52 percent of new cars sold in 2017 were electric or hybrid, fueled partially by huge subsidies and tax breaks for those who bought into it. “People need a real reason, a financial reason, to go green,” explains Alex Buttle, co-founder of U.K.-based car-selling site Motorway. Where benefits for buying a hybrid or electric car are smaller or nonexistent — such as in the U.K. and many other EU countries — Buttle says people are more hesitant to switch to a technology they’re not sure of. That’s especially the case when charging infrastructure for electric cars isn’t yet as developed as it needs to be in many areas. “Motorway did a survey asking what people expect to be driving after 2024,” Buttle says, “and people just don’t know what their options are. Everyone’s really confused, but the one thing they’re not confused about is that diesel is bad.”
That may be, he says, why many are hanging onto their gas-engine cars, worried about switching over — and about the potentially plummeting market value of their previous car when they try to offload it into a market that may no longer want it. But with car companies largely unready for a mass switch to electric, the push to make the shift may need to come from governments — and they may want to focus on the carrot rather than the stick.