May 23, 2024

Green Column: Barring Cars to Clear the Air

But for some European drivers, that pastime could be coming to an end where the authorities want to bar the most polluting vehicles.

“The future in city centers belongs to small cars and electric vehicles,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the French minister for ecology and transport, told a French newspaper, Le Parisien, last month.

Ms. Kosciusko-Morizet was announcing plans for eight of the largest French cities, including Paris and Nice, to restrict or bar access by passenger cars made before 1997, when stricter emissions standards took effect in Europe.

The French plan could affect millions of car owners who would face fines if they violated the rules. Owners of motorbikes, vans and heavy goods vehicles also would need to comply. Police cars, ambulances and fire trucks would be exempt.

The French plan still is undergoing a public consultation. But a three-year pilot project — designed to help France meet air quality standards set by the European Union and to cut the numbers of premature deaths — could get under way in some cities next year.

The French initiative is another example of so-called low emissions zones, areas in which some vehicles are barred or subject to extra charges.

Siim Kallas, the Union’s transport commissioner, said recently that the spread of these zones, combined with initiatives like support for electric vehicles and better public transport, should mean that some European cities will be entirely free of cars that run on gasoline or diesel by 2050.

The main goal of most low emissions zones is to reduce tiny particles that cause respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and can carry cancer-causing compounds, and to reduce nitrogen dioxide that is associated with respiratory problems and allergies.

Reducing nitrogen oxides also helps limit the formation of ozone, which irritates the eyes and the nose and exacerbates asthma and other lung problems.

The zones may also reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, if they lead to more efficient use of vehicles to do the same jobs.

According to the French authorities, certain types of particulate matter have fallen 19 percent in London, 25 percent in Berlin and 40 percent in Stockholm since those cities introduced their low emissions zones.

In German cities, car owners can buy a windscreen sticker that is valid for zones in other parts of the country. The German system covers all vehicles except motorbikes. In Italy, there is a patchwork of systems for all vehicles that includes motorbikes. There are also exemptions available for classic cars in parts of Europe.

In France, cities would retain authority to set precise rules.

The zones in Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as a giant zone in London, restrict heavy-duty vehicles but not passenger cars. London and Stockholm also run charging systems for most vehicles, but those are mainly aimed at relieving congestion.

Officials at the European Commission, the Union’s executive body, are keeping an eye on the systems. The commission could propose common principles if the zones end up discriminating against certain operators or catch too many visiting drivers by surprise.

To help vehicle operators navigate the zones, the commission is helping to fund a Web site,

Among the most frequent users of the site are truckers, coach drivers and motorists on vacation, according to Lucy Sadler, who runs a consulting firm that operates the site.

Ms. Sadler, who was the principal policy adviser on air quality for the Greater London Authority until 2005, said the zones were a major tool against pollutants that are particularly harmful to the very young and the elderly.

Even so, the authorities needed to be bold to set up such systems. “It’s never easy from a political point of view to tell people or companies to leave their vehicles in the garage,” said Jos Dings, the director of Transport Environment, an environmental group based in Brussels.

Environmental groups still have some concerns.

Michel Dubromel, a spokesman for the environmental group France Nature Environnement, said the French government should base the restrictions on how much fuel vehicles burn rather than the age of cars.

Mr. Dubromel also called for stricter rules on heavily polluting two-stroke motorcycle engines and for aid to drivers on low incomes so they could afford to convert their cars to comply with the new rules.

Another concern is whether the zones effectively contribute to limiting emissions of nitrogen dioxide, because new diesel cars tend to pollute more in use than in tests. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has said tests to measure the environmental friendliness of new cars should include stricter regulation of nitrogen dioxide emissions.

Among the groups that are most enthusiastic about the proliferation of low emissions zones is the electric vehicle industry, because the restrictions could be a major catalyst for development of the technology. But the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, representing the biggest carmakers, has taken a more cautious view.

“Whether radical measures like bans really make sense is a complex question to answer,” said Sigrid de Vries, a spokeswoman for the association in Brussels.

Some low emissions zones could discourage innovation and hold back the most efficient solutions to auto emissions, she said.

Instead of promoting bans, the authorities should focus on helping the industry continue to improve the efficiency of internal combustion engines and other technologies and use computer systems to help improve traffic flows, she said.

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