European Cities Are Just Saying 'No' to Scandal-Tinged Diesel Vehicles

By William Boston Features Dow Jones Newswires

Large European cities from Munich to Madrid are banning or restricting diesel vehicles amid mounting alarm over toxic emissions, presenting a major challenge to European car makers who sell millions of them.

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National governments have been slow to react to a string of scandals that have exposed diesel engines as far bigger polluters than advertised. But these cities, goaded by environmental groups, are emerging as the leaders of an antidiesel movement that is forcing Europe's car industry to rethink its future.

Among the cities considering or seeking a ban on diesel vehicles or an environmental tax are BMW AG's hometown Munich, and Stuttgart, which hosts Daimler AG and Porsche SE. Their message to Europe's car makers: If you can't clean diesel, we will.

"Cities are sending a signal to the public and manufacturers that there is a preference for clean vehicles," said Ray Minjares, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation. The group uncovered emissions cheating by German car maker Volkswagen AG that has drawn attention to the issue over the past two years.

The scandal, which has since spread to other auto makers, started in the U.S. But less than 5% of U.S. cars are diesels, compared with half of all new European cars sold -- some 85 million on the road.

The European Union took center stage after it set aggressive targets to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to fight climate change.

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European auto makers, especially the Germans, bet big on diesel as their main tool to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Diesel burns more efficiently than gasoline, so it gets better mileage and emits less carbon dioxide. The industry pushed it and won support from European governments, which have subsidized diesel through lower taxes since the 1990s.

Climate change isn't the only issue. A study co-authored by Mr. Minjares concluded that just one pollutant from diesel engines caused 107,600 premature deaths world-wide in 2015. Around 80% of them were in Europe, China and India.

But car makers will be hard-pressed to shift from diesel and still meet European greenhouse-gas targets. Demand for electric cars is still less than 2% of global auto sales. All sales of new electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, accounted for just 1% of the 14.6 million new cars sold in the EU last year.

German car makers and unions are worried about the impact on their livelihoods. More than half the European sales of Germany's top brands, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche, sport diesel engines.

Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, which owns Mercedes, said this week that "driving bans are a political response, but will not lead to real change because they can't really be implemented."

Germany's largest industrial union, IG Metall, also objects, in part because they say bans would disproportionately hurt poorer drivers. Car makers, it says, should make older engines cleaner while politicians should promote electric vehicles and invest in technology to improve traffic flows.

"Such a sweeping demand is nonsense," Roman Zitzelsberger, head of IG Metall's southwestern Germany chapter, said this week.

The German auto industry is offering a trade off: It has offered to update software on middle-age diesel vehicles on the road in Germany to bring them in line with modern emissions standards if bans are dropped. But nearly half of the 15 million diesel cars on the road in Germany are too old to fix.

The mayors driving the movement say they have little choice. As traffic hubs, they suffer some of the world's most toxic air. And since the Volkswagen scandal discredited "clean diesel," a barrage of court orders is forcing them to address the issue.

In car-crazy Germany, where Rudolf Diesel invented the eponymous engine, Stuttgart will begin next year to ban all but the most modern diesels, around 90% of them. Munich, which is considering a similar step, must present a plan by week's end to drastically cut the city's chronic pollution, in response to a court ruling.

Paris, which prohibits any diesel vehicle made before 1997 from driving in the city, will extend the ban in July to diesel vehicles made before 2001. That will affect nearly a fifth of the nation's heavy goods vehicles and a smaller percentage of passenger vehicles.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is creating an ultralow-emission zone with a system of prohibitive road tolls. "The air in London is lethal," Mr. Khan said in April as he unveiled plans to steeply raise the toll on the most polluting vehicles starting in 2019.

Oslo, the Norwegian capital, enacted a diesel ban in January as winter smog smothered the city, fining violators nearly $180. The ban, in effect from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., was lifted once winds picked up and the air cleared.

The strategy is gaining traction beyond Europe. Mexico City joined Paris, Athens, and Madrid at a mayors' conference in December in a pledge to ban all diesel vehicles from their cities by 2025. Seoul plans to ban diesel made before 2006 from driving in the city's central districts.

"It is correct and important to discuss driving bans," Dieter Reiter, Lord Mayor of Munich, said this month.

Write to William Boston at william.boston@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 27, 2017 12:50 ET (16:50 GMT)