Are Low Emissions Zones a Game-Changer for Green Mobility?

Friday 17th November 2023

Headshot of Jon Lawes - Managing Director at Novuna Vehicle Solutions

Jon Lawes, Managing Director at MHC Mobility assesses the impact of Low Emission Zones in Europe’s transition to green mobility.

The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion made headlines in the UK, but the initiative is just one of many similar approaches being adopted by cities around Europe. Stockholm recently went even further than London in announcing plans to ban all internal combustion engine (ICE) cars from the city centre from as soon as 2025.

But what has the impact of these policies been, and have they been successful in accelerating Europe’s transition?

A look at the map

There are now more than 320 Low Emission Zones (LEZs) in place across Europe, set to rise to over 500 by 2025. These are located in countries across the continent.

Some cities are even planning to follow Stockholm’s example by banning most ICE vehicles altogether. There are 35 so-called Zero Emissions Zones (ZEZs) scheduled by 2030 – although there is some regional disparity with 26 of these located in the Netherlands alone.

There is a strong case to be made for reducing ICE vehicles’ access to urban areas. In addition to contributing to climate change, it is estimated that air pollution causes 300,000 premature deaths each year in the EU alone, and a recent Guardian investigation revealed shocking levels of air pollution across Europe, with almost the whole continent subjected to some level of toxic emissions.

LEZs often have twin goals – reducing carbon emissions, primarily through encouraging electric vehicle (EV) uptake, and improving public health. There is good evidence that LEZs are generally effective at improving air quality, with a study finding that by October 2022, the ULEZ had reduced toxic nitrogen oxide levels next to the roadside by an estimated 46% in central London.

From ULEZ to U-turn

When it comes to EV adoption however, the evidence on LEZs is more mixed. Research suggests a quarter of London drivers are considering making the switch due to London’s ULEZ. However, this also indicates a limited impact for the vast majority.

In London and many other cities around Europe, newer ICE vehicles often remain compliant with LEZ initiatives. Many drivers are therefore still more likely to switch to a more-affordable compliant ICE car or choose hybrid over ongoing concerns around public charging availability.

London’s ULEZ expansion has also been criticised as part of a growing net-zero backlash, just as industry bodies have been vocal in their opposition to Stockholm’s plan, and there are signs of wavering commitment to the transition from European policymakers.

Most recently this led to the dilution of the Euro 7 regulations, which would have raised standards on vehicle emissions higher still. And most damagingly, there remains a standoff between the EU and UK over rule-of-origin tariffs for EV batteries, which could lead to significant EV price increases that dampen appetite for EV adoption, even despite LEZ initiatives.

Accelerating the transition

There is still a long way to go for Europe to meet its pressing climate goals and the EV switch is key to this. LEZs have been making good progress and are cleaning up Europe’s cities, but they are not a silver bullet for EV adoption by themselves and must be combined with other measures as part of a long-term decarbonisation strategy to be truly effective.

A key pillar of this is the need for continued investment in high-speed charging infrastructure to build confidence in the EV transition. It’s also critical that unnecessary cost barriers, such as the incoming rule-of-origin tariffs, are avoided.

The expansion of LEZs is welcome and may yet play an important role in the ongoing green mobility switch, but fleet managers thinking long-term still need a complete decarbonisation strategy of their own, of which zero tailpipe emissions remains central.