Decreasing emissions for passenger cars

Emissions standards

In the EU member states, emissions standards are adopted at the EU level. The EU Regulation 2019/631 from 2019 aims to tighten emissions standards (in gCO2/kilometer) from new passenger cars by 37.5% in 2030 below 2021 levels. The proposal tabled in the “Fit for 55” framework strengthened this emissions reduction goal to 55% and introduced a new goal of emissions reduction by 100% in 2035.

However, these values correspond to new cars sales in a given year. With the average car age in the EU at 11.5 years and much older in eastern European countries, the proposal will result in delayed emissions reductions. Also, the emissions rate applies to a car fleet sales average from manufacturers, allowing for the sale of much more emissions-intensive vehicles to be compensated by selling cleaner vehicles elsewhere. 

Member states may trigger accelerated decarbonisation of their car fleet by closely linking the annual taxation of vehicles with their emissions. Since 1.1.2021, the German KFZ tax has been influenced more heavily by their CO2 emissions.

A Euro 7 standard is also on the horizon, as the European Commission proposes closing the gap between current standards and the 2035 deadline for internal combustion engines phase-out. Estimates are that the new standard will set legal limits on emissions for 100 million diesel and gasoline cars sold in Europe starting in 2025, when new emission standards are planned to come into effect. Estimates by a consortium of independent experts show that these cars will be more expensive than current models by 100€ to 500€ and will come with the co-benefit of emitting much less NOx and particle emissions than current Euro 6 models. 

Given that the average road life of cars is 11 years in Western Europe and more than 15 years in Southern Eastern European Member States, the Commission expects Euro 7 models to be in circulation up to 2050. Thus, the Euro 7 standard is necessary for emissions reductions if the EU plans to hit its net-zero emissions target, especially in countries with a sizeable second-hand car market. The Commission has intended to develop a proposal at the end of 2022.

According to an estimate by the IEA from November 2021, the average rated fuel consumption on new light-duty vehicles fell only by 0.9% between 2017 and 2019 – far less than the 1.8% annual decrease between 2010 and 2015. On a global average, in 2019, a new light-duty car consumed 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres. The slight reduction in average fuel consumption can be explained by the fact that new cars sold in 2019 were, on average, 6.2% heavier than those sold in 2010.

Low-emission zones

Low-emissions Zones (LEZs) may be an attractive tool to reduce air pollution in some parts of the city, e.g., city centres. LEZs would reduce CO2 emissions and promote the transition to using more fuel-efficient and zero-emissions vehicles. There are two main variations of LEZs: (1) areas where the highest-emitting vehicles may not travel, and (2) areas in which all vehicles or only those above certain emissions limits may enter upon payment of a fee.

While LEZs may be very effective in reducing air pollution and CO2 emissions, congestion charging may also come at a high political cost if introduced on short notice. To increase the acceptability of LEZs, their introduction should be announced far in advance, with slow and steady increase in coverage and charges. Governments should use the space gained from a reduced number of cars innovatively to benefit the majority of the citizens living in the LEZs. Finally, attractive alternatives to private vehicles, like public transport, walking and cycling, should be developed.   

Policies can significantly impact passenger car activity levels if congestion charging and parking fees are introduced jointly, with the balance determined by the specific circumstances. Relying too much or exclusively on parking fees may be counterproductive and result in almost constant driving of cars operated by such companies as Uber or – in the future – autonomous vehicles. This issue is amplified if the cost of burning fuel by driving is lower than the cost of parking. 

Examples

London’s well-known LEZ and Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) bans high emissions vehicles from the inner city 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except Christmas. Cars allowed to drive in the zones are charged £12.50 a day for cars, vans and motorcycles, and £100 a day for lorries, buses and coaches. The ULEZ resulted in a 20% reduction in emissions and dropped the worst polluting vehicles entering the zone each day from 35,578 to 23,054. Mayor Sadiq Kahn recently announced plans to expand the ULEZ to cover the entire greater London area by 2023, estimating an additional 20-40,000 high-emissions cars to be taken off the road. 

Brussels, Belgium introduced a LEZ for the Brussels-Capital region, gradually banning the most polluting cars stepwise. The regulation concerns cars, vans and (mini)buses and coaches. Under the regulation, diesel and diesel hybrid cars and vans will not be able to travel within LEZ limits starting with 2029. Most petrol/hybrid/CNG/LNG cars and vans Euro 4 and above will be allowed on the streets until 2029; Euro 6d will be permitted until 2034. The region sets a fine of 350 EUR for failure to comply with the regulation. Based on vehicle license plates, police will carry out checks through fixed and mobile cameras. 

Additionally, Spain implemented a law in 2020 introducing LEZs in all municipalities with a population greater than 50.000, and in 2019 Krakow, Poland, became the first Polish city to implement a LEZ.

Area bans

Similarly to congestion charging, area bans can be useful when it comes to decreasing emissions from passenger transport. Typically, area bans limit private vehicle travel through some geographic area and often repurpose roads for public purposes; this could include expanding bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, adding outdoor seating or play space for children, and increasing public green space by adding trees and planters in areas which otherwise would’ve been taken up by cars.

There are several types of area bans, including:

  • car free zones – typically entire city centres or other congested areas;
  • smaller car-free blocks, typically around areas with high numbers of pedestrians or which are not suited to car travel, and
  • areas closed to through traffic

Popular support for area bans has grown over the past several years, and many larger cities are experimenting with banning cars from specific streets or on certain days as a precursor to implementing a total area ban.

Paris, France is introducing a plan to ban all combustion engine cars from its roads by 2030 as part of a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While a ban on diesel cars had been already announced, with implementation beginning in 2024, a representative from the Mayor’s Office said that by 2030 the ban would include both petrol and diesel cars. Electric vehicles would not be impacted by this ban. 

La Cumbrecita, Argentina is a hamlet about 120 km away from the capital, Cordoba, in which no cars are allowed to enter. In 1996 the town and surrounding area were declared a protected environment zone, and the La Cumbrecita was deigned a “pedestrian town”. Visitors are encouraged to plan their stays in advance as outside vehicles are not allowed in and only authorised vehicles may be used within the area. The regulations on vehicle usage are stringent, with the express purpose of protecting the environment.

One of the most well-known cities with a car-ban in place is Venice, Italy. Due to the city’s narrow passageways and many canals, vehicles never became a popular or practical mode of transport in the city centre and it continues to remain this way. Locals and visitors must walk, bike ride, or take water transport to navigate the city.

Subsidies for EVs

In recent years, subsidies for purchasing electric passenger cars have become a prominent way to promote electric mobility and reduce emissions from passenger cars. These subsidies for electric vehicle purchases amount to as much as €9000 in some EU countries. 

The promotion of passenger EVs is justified by the need to reach economies of scale and open the possibility to phase out combustion cars in the coming years. According to the recent proposal from the European Commission, the sale of new combustion cars should stop in 2035. Acceptance for this goal is only possible if zero-carbon alternatives at a similar price are available. In addition, with the cost of electric vehicles exceeding the level of the subsidies 3-4 times, the financial assistance triggers investment of significant private capital into zero-carbon alternatives.

At the same time, the utilisation of public money to subsidise the purchase of new electric vehicles is not without controversy for several reasons:

  • New electric cars are affordable for higher-income households, raising significant equity concerns. 
  • In most EU countries, car buyers can also use the subsidies to subsidise plug-in electric cars, with a minimal range. In many cases, such vehicles are never or only sporadically charged electrically. As a result, the promotion of electric mobility turns into a subsidy for purchasing new combustion vehicles. 
  • Replacement of combustion cars by electric ones does not solve the issues of congestion and misappropriation of public space and may worsen them due to the lower utilisation costs of electric vehicles. 

The methods that governments use to promote electric cars can be improved in numerous ways, mainly: 

  • A bonus-malus tax system would impose additional taxes and fees on combustion vehicles, and government would spend the collected amount to promote electric cars and public charging infrastructure. The additional tax could apply especially to the registration fee of imported or new combustion cars, reducing the financial burden on the public and increasing social acceptance for the measure.
  • Steady and predictable decrease of the level of subsidy after a certain amount of electric cars has been sold. This may be necessary, especially if the sale of electric vehicles increases significantly, which will make it financially unsustainable and may require sudden changes. A predictable mechanism to help reduce the burden on subsidy budget, would be to decrease the level of subsidy by X% after X number of cars have been sold. It could also accelerate the deployment of electric mobility, with customers willing to benefit from the higher levels of subsidies.
  • Increased subsidies for buyers purchasing a car with a car scrappage scheme. This would help to avoid a situation where older, more carbon-intensive cars are still on the street even after the sales of electric vehicles increase. 
  • Support for electric plug-ins should be significantly limited and conditional on the utilisation of the car, mainly in electric mode. Delayed payment of the subsidy corresponding to the share of kilometres travelled electrically within a specific period offers an alternative to those worried about the range and charging possibilities.  

There are also numerous other ways to promote the deployment of electric vehicles, e.g. tax breaks for owners (registration, ownership), exemptions for parking fees in cities, possibility to use bus lanes. Whenever policy makers introduce such incentives, they must ensure that the measures are temporary and will not create additional problems (e.g. blockage of bus lanes, loss of tax proceeds) if most or all combustion cars are replaced by electric vehicles. Ensuring and communicating their temporary character could, in fact, facilitate the deployment of electric vehicles as the potential buyers would like to take advantage of these incentives.   Increased deployment of EVs has the potential to reduce global oil demand by up to 100 thousand barrels of oil per day, and as such should be strongly reinforced. 

An additional aspect driving the deployment of EVs is an investment in appropriate public charging infrastructure. This is covered in the respective Best Practice.

Biofuels

Relying on correct carbon accounting and sustainability of supply at a policy level. The experience of the ILUC reform, and following the EC’s Globiom report in 2016, most conventional biofuels, especially biodiesel, were deemed more emissions-intensive than traditional fuels. This is due to the Renewable Energy Directive, neglecting indirect land-use change as an emissions factor in life-cycle assessments calculations for agrofuel emissions. 

As we advance, the discussion around 2030 policies will focus on limiting the role biofuels in decarbonising European transport. While conventional biofuels have proved to not be a viable option due to high emissions, contribution to biodiversity loss, and potential for fuel vs food conflict, advanced biofuels are slow to come to market. This is mainly the result of lacking a clear definition of “waste”, allowing for unsustainable raw materials that might drive up emissions. 

Currently, a further revision of the RED should phase out high emitting biofuels, such as those made from imported soy from South American countries – these are high-ILUC crops linked to deforestation. A revision of the RED should also consider strengthening sustainability safeguards for the eligible feedstocks for advanced biofuels in Annex IX of the directive, where UCO and other feedstocks are considered problematic in terms of emissions other negative impacts.

The governments of the member states should shy away from biofuel blending targets for road transport. At the moment, electrification of passenger cars offers a much more viable option, with biofuels, if at all used, much more relevant for other modes of transport.

Eco-driving

Eco-driving reduces emissions by taking specific steps to increase efficiency and adapt the vehicle to driving conditions to minimise pollution and avoid congestion. Promoting eco-driving is a relatively low-cost measure to reduce carbon emissions and fuel consumption and should be considered when approaching vehicle traffic. 

The practice of eco-driving is centred around acceleration/deceleration, speed, idling time, and route choice to handle the vehicle in a way that maximises fuel economy given current road and traffic conditions. Drivers should generally reduce speeds to the most efficient for their particular vehicle, anticipate high traffic situations to maintain constant speeds, and minimise abruptness of accelerations and braking. This requires a deliberate and specific change in driving style, which instructors can teach drivers at all levels. 

There are different methods for reinforcement, ranging from taught courses to real-time technological feedback. In the first option, as part of licensing or re-certification, drivers take a specific course which teaches them how to anticipate traffic, change gear economically, select the most efficient routes, and become aware of maintenance issues which impact fuel economy. Importantly, vehicle efficiency is not static, and all of the above variables are subject to change over time. When added to human drivers’ general fallibility, these courses will likely need to be repeated over time to ensure maximum efficacy. 

The second reinforcement option takes advantage of eco-driving devices, which measure fuel economy and highlight the most efficient speed or when to change gears. These devices have been shown to impact how people drive and benefit from addressing driving behaviours as they occur. Eco-driving devices and real-time feedback have been estimated to improve fuel economy, decrease emissions by 10-12% per trip, improve road safety, and decrease noise pollution. Estimates found that while 40% of drivers already practice eco-driving techniques, this number could rise to around 95% if gas prices surge. A recent IEA report on emergency measures to cut global oil demand suggests that applying eco-driving principles to passenger transport and goods delivery could save an estimated 320 thousand barrels of oil per day, or around 0.3% of global oil demand. 

Examples:

In the private sector, The International Road Transport Union (IRU) offers eco-driving training courses targeted at corporate clients (e.g. those corporate driving cars or fleet vehicles) for those companies which wish to maximise fuel efficiency and decrease emissions. In the course, drivers learn optimal use of vehicle technology, look at the effects of their driving behaviour, and learn how to monitor and evaluate road conditions to maximise efficiency. The course is one day followed by monitoring with onboard software to measure driver habits and determine the change in fuel economy over time. 

Speed limits

Speed limits can increase safety for road users using all transport modes and improve fuel efficiency. However, the impacts on emissions reductions differ depending on whether the speed limits are applied in populated areas or motorways. 

Speed limits on motorways 

Speed limits on motorways have a significant impact on CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide output is directly related to fuel consumption; therefore, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing consumption is critical to reducing carbon emissions from vehicles. Recent White Papers by the European Commission and strategies from the European Environment Agency encourage the reduction of speed limits to cut fuel consumption and transport emissions. Lower speed limits could potentially have an immediate impact on emissions. A simulation found that cutting motorway speed limits from 120 to 110 km/h could deliver fuel savings for current technology passenger cars of 12–18%, assuming smooth driving. The simulation shows that fuel consumption generally decreases with reduced speed. By setting speed limits on motorways lower, regulators can balance mobility, safety, and environmental concerns to find an optimum balance that protects drivers, passengers, and the environment. The reduction in emissions is a primary reason why 75% of the European drivers interviewed were ready to accept speed limits at the motorways. 

EU’s Regulation 2019/2144 makes it mandatory to install Intelligent Speed Assistant (ISA) from 6 July 2022 in all new cars sold to increase compliance with the speed limits. The Intelligent Speed Assistance is an electronic speed limiter designed to inform the driver of the speed limit on a particular stretch of road while prompting them to slow down if they exceed the speed limit. 

The potential of reducing the speed at the motorways, especially in countries where no speed limit has been implemented, gained new momentum in the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, Germany’s Umweltbundesamt announced a series of recommendations for reducing fuel demand. With reasonably conservative assumptions, they find that by lowering top speed to 100 kph on main motorways and 80 kph on roads outside of towns, the German public could save 2,1 billion litres of fuel annually, even when considering that not all drivers follow the speed limit. This comes to just about 4% of all fuel consumed by the transport sector annually and could lead to an emissions reduction of 5,3 million tCO2eq.  

Speed limits in residential areas

Speed limits in residential areas have a much lower impact on emissions. According to some assessments, the lowest emissions occur between 55-80 km/h. However, speed limits as low as 30km/h have a significant impact on the safety of drivers and even more so for cyclists and pedestrians. E.g. In May 2019, Helsinki introduced a 30 km/h speed limit on all roads in residential areas. As a result, it ended 2019 without a single pedestrian or cyclist killed in a traffic accident. 

Several cities introduced speed limits of 30km/h, usually starting from city centres and expanding its scope to the whole cities. In 2021, the European Parliament adopted the resolution on EU road safety based on the Stockholm Declaration. The EP resolution includes an EU-wide speed limit reduction to 30 ​km/h in residential areas and areas with high traffic of cyclists and pedestrians. 

Pollution and health implications

The World Health Organization recently recognised noise pollution as one of the main negative implications of modern life, right behind air pollution. Noise above 55 dB(A) at night can seriously reduce the quality of sleep and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. One of the primary sources of noise pollution is road traffic, and an estimated 40% of EU citizens are exposed to road noise levels above 55 dB(A) during the day and at night. The key factors impacting road noise are: speed, engine type, and road type. Road type cannot often be controlled for. Above certain speeds, engine type becomes immaterial; thus, careful speed management becomes the critical factor when reducing noise pollution. A 2016 study found that the noise increased between 1.5-3 dB(A) for every 10km/h speed increase. Therefore, speed limits should be reduced to such a level that reduces noise pollution to a level compatible with health and safety requirements, particularly at night. This impact on safety, combined with decreased noise pollution, is one of the main reasons for their popularity

Examples

In 2015 in Katowice, Poland, the Tempo30 zone was introduced in the city centre and subsequently extended to more than a dozen areas. In 2019, as part of the European Sustainable Transport Week, Tempo 30 was developed to further streets in the city centre. An evaluation of the effects of its introduction based on data from 2014 and 2018 shows concrete benefits. The total number of accidents fell by around 41%, while accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists fell by approximately 37%. The introduction and development of Katowice’s Tempo30 zone are complemented by the expansion of cycling infrastructure and reprogramming of traffic lights to the “all red” mode

In Grenoble, France, a city of 160,000 inhabitants and 14 surrounding municipalities, the government introduced a 30 km/h speed limit on 1 January 2016. The programme under which this has been implemented is called ‘Calmer City’ and aims to distribute public space between people travelling in different ways equitably. At the same time, a new priority cycling network was created. Similarly, a 30 km/h speed limit in Lille in August 2020, and in Paris in August 2022. From 1 January 2021, a general speed limit of 30 kilometres was introduced in Brussels. The number of speed cameras has been significantly increased to ensure enforcement.

In summer 2018, 87% of Bilbao’s streets were restricted to 30km/h limits, and this was then expanded to all of the city in 2020. As of May 2021, the maximum speed limit on most Spanish roads is 30 km/h. This applies to all roads within built-up areas with a maximum of one lane in each direction. Behind the change in restrictions are recent changes to the way people drive in cities. Increases in walking instead of using cars or motorcycles, and the popularity of cycling and electric scooters have all had an impact. 

In Zurich, the speed limit reduction was mainly aimed at reducing traffic noise pollution. The pilot project, which ran from 2010-2012, introduced a night-time speed limit. The Swiss government is negotiating speed limits of 50 and 30 km/h at the national level, but the Zurich authorities have already gone ahead and introduced a 30 km/h limit during the day on 400 kilometres of road network.

In 2020, the Netherlands lowered its national speed limit from 130 to 100 kilometres per hour to reduce emissions.

Smarter acquisition

Public authorities purchase a significant share of passenger cars: for example, cars used by public administration, police cars, fire brigades, and more. Public authorities use these vehicles at a much higher rate than passenger cars in many cases. Due to the more extensive fleet, they also allow for economies of scale in terms of developing the charging infrastructure. Thus, climate action in this area is more efficient regarding resources invested.  

This potential is mainly unused due to the path dependencies. Firstly, those responsible for renewing the fleets often lack critical knowledge about the opportunities offered by low carbon alternatives. Secondly, a separate budget is typically used to finance the purchase of vehicles, different from the refuelling budget. The balance between these two budgets does not reflect the higher upfront costs compensated by much lower operating costs in the case of an electrified car fleet.  

Targeted training aimed at educating the procurement experts could enhance their knowledge about the state-of-the-art developments in non-combustion vehicles and increase their self-confidence in advocating for purchasing new kinds of cars (e.g. EVs). 

The training should include:

  • an update on the technical and economic feasibility of clean vehicles 
  • list of potential sellers and models 
  • preparing drafts of calls for bids 
  • sessions with the providers of the necessary infrastructure 
  • sessions with the providers of the required funding (e.g., EVs, charging infrastructure).  

The training should target:

  • Fleet managers and fleet engineers in the public sector at the municipal and state level
  • Members of the public administrations responsible for budgeting 
  • Department managers for fleet users

Targeting both upper- and mid-level management can ensure that fleet electrification has the necessary administrative support at all levels and that all fleet stakeholders are on board with the transition. 

Examples:

The United Kingdom’s Department for Transport (DfT) offered the “Freight Best Practice programme“, which supplied free training materials, briefs, and reports to managers and associated workers in logistics, specifically with an eye towards fleet efficiency. A cornerstone of this project was the reduction of emissions in private and public sector fleet vehicles. At its peak, the programme provided 200,000 informational guides, best practice briefs, and case studies to fleet managers and drivers around the UK.

Regular monitoring

Without regular maintenance, motor vehicle emissions significantly increase over time, especially NOx and CO2. Used cars that do not have a complete maintenance history tend to have much lower market prices and are thus utilised in some cases, despite their much higher fuel costs resulting from low engine efficiency. In some cases, intentional tampering can also be a cause of increased emissions. 

To reduce the number of cars not fulfilling roadworthiness criteria, governments should ensure that regular roadworthiness tests are conducted according to the criteria prescribed by legislation. In addition, ad hoc technical roadside checks, especially in rural areas, should be more frequent to discourage utilisation of overly-polluting vehicles. 

Examples

Belgium implemented a rule in 2004 that second-hand cars must be granted a “Car-Pass” certificate ensuring that the value given by the odometer has not been tampered with. The initial 2004 law was updated in 2018 to add more information to the “Car-Pass” certificate, such as CO2 emissions, vehicle inspections and recalls. The CO2 emissions on the Car-Pass must comply with the certificate of conformity. The Car-Pass is a mandatory document that sellers of second-hand cars need to hand over to the new owner. Each time a car is taken to a garage, a workshop or a vehicle inspection, the current mileage is added to the database.

South Korea has strong emissions and testing requirements. Every private vehicle must be tested at least every two years and vans and light trucks must be tested every year. Failure to comply results in increasing fines. Vehicle testing in Korea is known to be very thorough – approved garages and testing centres check such things as steering, speedometer accuracy, braking power, noise levels produced, emissions under different circumstances, wear on the tires, frame, and body of the car, and other factors which may impact the roadworthiness and efficient functioning of the vehicle. 

Policy measures

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