Future of cars

Paris: 'La Guerre au diesel'?

By: David Bailey @dgbailey
Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2015 - 18:08 GMT Jump to Comments

Diesel cars seemed like a good idea. Diesel engines emit less CO2. European manufacturers invested heavily in diesel technology. Now cities are moving to ban diesel cars from their centres. But is this just the first skirmish in the war to outlaw the internal combustion engine in our city centres.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced late last year ambitious plans to ban the dirtiest diesel cars from the French capital by 2020 as part of a drive to cut pollution. In addition, following an example set by Rome, semi-pedestrianised zones would be created in parts of central Paris at weekends which would limit car use.

However, in the Paris case these weekend trials could be "rapidly" extended to include weekdays.  Vehicle use inside these zones would be limited to the cars of residents plus emergency and delivery vehicles. And buses, taxis and bicycles could still move around.

This week, Hidalgo fleshed out her plans. By July, diesel buses and trucks will be banned during the daytime from entering the city but not from the ring road around Paris. The measure will be gradually extended to ban by 2020 diesel vehicles made before 2011 and which are regarded as the most polluting.

The Paris move is the latest by mayors in major European cities, including London, which want to tackle pollution emitted by diesel fumes, whose particles and nitrogen oxides are harmful to health, especially in relation to respiratory health.

France, though, has the biggest challenge, being largely reliant on diesels. Almost two thirds of cars sold last year in France were diesels. French drivers have turned to diesel as it's cheaper than petrol in France, and delivers better fuel efficiency.  The Paris mayor recognised this, stating that financial incentives would be available for the purchase of more environmentally friendly cars.

The French government has got in on the act. Last November, Prime Minister Manuel Valls admitted that the promotion of diesel cars had been a "mistake." His comments reflected a wider shift in thinking in Europe.  For years, policy has focused almost exclusively on reducing carbon dioxide emissions so as to limit global warming. Policies in turn encouraged auto manufacturers to invest heavily in diesels as they emit less CO2 per mile at the tailpipe than petrol powered cars.

In the UK, for instance, company cars (which account for about half of annual car sales) have a 'benefit-in-kind' tax for drivers related to the car's CO2 rating, thus making diesels more attractive from a tax point of view. As a result, diesel sales in the UK have grown dramatically in recent years.
And consumers like the high fuel efficiency and torque of diesel cars. What's more, diesel is cheaper than unleaded petrol in many European countries.

There is, however, as big question as to whether European manufacturers have bet too heavily on a technology that is only used extensively here in Europe. The US and Japanese diesel markets have never taken off, for example, and one wonders if the likes of BMW and Daimler have been backing the right technology. Toyota, for example, has gone into petrol hybrids in a big way to get emissions down without the harmful particulate emissions of diesels.

And now policy makers' attention is focusing again on air quality. That in turn raises questions about the sustainability of diesels given the harmful pollutants they emit - notably nitrogen oxide. London for example has announced plans for an "ultra low emission zone" with a doubling of its congestion charge for older diesel vehicles by the end of the decade.

It's true that diesels have become more environment-friendly. Filters trap more of the dangerous emissions, but there is a long way to go.

This shift in position by policy makers at both a national and city level poses some big challenges for firms like Peugeot which have invested heavily in diesel technology, and the big three German premium manufacturers, notably BMW and Daimler.

Auto manufacturers are already starting to protest at a possible 'backlash' in Europe that tries to phase out diesels. Firms see diesels as a key technology in meeting tough CO2 emissions targets. 

What the trend may well mean is more cooperation between firms over sharing petrol, diesel, hybrid and electric technology, as investing across all of these is hugely challenging for firms.

Cooperating with other firms - in the way that Peugeot is doing with BMW and Renault Nissan is with Daimler, can help firms manage risks around changing policy targets, particularly in a context of devolution to cities where more power is vested locally over things like managing pollution levels, and where much of the push is coming form on phasing out diesels.

More broadly, this raises an important question about what targets should actually be. While diesels tend to have lower tailpipe emissions of CO2 per mile, in terms of the "well to wheel" impact or vehicle lifetime impact, diesels may be no better than petrol powered cars as diesel itself is more energy intensive to refine, and the types of diesel cars consumers purchase tend to be heavier.

Looking at the 'whole life' impact of a car on global emissions alongside its local particulate emissions may be a better measure of a car's real impact for society and the environment.

Professor David Bailey works at the Aston Business School.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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