The end of February saw a landmark announcement from German law courts. In a significant ruling, older diesel cars will now be banned from some German city centres. The move is aimed at reducing pollution levels to hit EU targets, which are a leading cause of toxic fumes and associated deaths from respiratory diseases.

However, the legal course of banning just older diesel cars is unlikely to happen in UK cities. The Government and councils are taking a “clear air approach” by looking across a range of types of solutions, such as charges and fines. Oxford City Council is the only city to take the German line and consider banning all polluting vehicles by a set date.

Focused German ban

The German solution to the problem of poor city air quality saw the cities of Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dusseldorf legally ban older, more polluting diesel cars from the areas of the cities most affected by pollution. The ruling creates a precedent for other cities across Germany to consider taking similar moves – despite the government saying they are against the move.

The case was brought by environmental group DUH after 70 cities across Germany were found to have exceeded the limits set by the EU for nitrogen oxides (NOx). Diesel emissions contain nitrogen oxides, and these particles relate to causing respiratory disease.

UK “clean air” position

Here in the UK, there is little momentum to follow the move, although there are the same legal obligations and targets from the EU to reduce pollution levels here as in Germany. The UK government is set on a different path including creating clean air zones where polluting older diesel cars will be charged to enter or park rather than banned outright

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has created the idea of clean air zones as the quickest way to bring down pollution levels. Currently, Oxford is the only local authority considering a German-style blanket ban.

The Oxford idea

The city council are currently looking at banning all non-zero emissions cars from the city centre. Under the plan, all taxis, buses and light commercial vehicles, as well as cars, could be banned from certain areas if they pollute in any way. This would be put into force by 2020 and would extend to cover the whole city centre by 2035.

Councillor John Tanner, Oxford City Council Executive Board Member for A Clean and Green Oxford, said: “Toxic and illegal air pollution in the city centre is damaging the health of Oxford’s residents. A step change is urgently needed; the Zero Emission Zone is that step change.

“All of us who drive or use petrol or diesel vehicles through Oxford are contributing to the city’s toxic air. Everyone needs to do their bit – from national Government and local authorities to businesses and residents – to end this public health emergency.

“The County and City together are proposing a staged Zero Emission Zone from 2020 in the city centre, with additional measures to bring down chronic pollution in St Clement’s Street, High Street and St Aldate’s. Everyone who uses Oxford centre has the right to breathe clean air.”

Other ways to deal with the problem

Italy’s capital Rome is another city that plans to ban diesel cars by 2024 from the city centre. Rome is one of the most congested cities in Europe and with its many ancient monuments, pollution is a risk to people and also to its heritage.

Other cities including Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City are looking at the possibility of a diesel ban by 2025. The Mayor of Copenhagen in Denmark is taking a bolder move – he wants to ban diesel cars by as early as next year from the city centre.

Falling numbers

The future looks bleak for diesel but also petrol cars. The government has already announced a ban on both by 2040 for new vehicles and many local authorities are planning measures much before this. London’s Congestion Charge and T-Charge zones are examples of schemes already in place.

With pressure from the courts to do something about air quality, there is growing pressure on the government to do something. Moreover, with diesel sale numbers falling rapidly, the future does not look bright for diesel. It may soon be vanishing from our streets altogether although blanket city bans do not look to be on the horizon here in the UK – just yet.

What do you think about German moves to outright ban older diesel vehicles instead of a toxicity charge to enter or park? What do you think about Oxford’s plans? Are they the right approach or do you think its impractical? Let us know in the comments below.

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