The Fight Against Pollution In European Cities

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By Anne-Sophie Garrigou

Major cities in Europe are joining the race to build a zero carbon economy, something that has us very excited. From Berlin to Paris, London, Copenhagen, Oxford and Oslo, we’re taking you on a sustainable road trip around European cities to have a look at the policies being implemented in the fight against pollution.

The London city toll

Since 2003, polluting vehicles can only access the center of the British capital if they pay 11.50 pounds per day (12.90 euros). London’s Congestion Charge, effective between 7am and 6pm from Monday to Friday, allows exemption for motorcycles, taxis, and vehicles that use alternative fuels, but for others the surveillance cameras automatically read license plates and any delay in payment results in an increased invoice.

Sandra Ahn Mode

Despite this measure, Londoners are still breathing toxic levels of PM2.5 particles. And the fact that the largest sources of PM2.5 particles are tires and brake dust suggests that electrification is at best only a partial answer. Now, London appears to be pursuing an all-of-the-above strategy when it comes to greener transportation, including switching electric buses, to a massive investment in cycle infrastructure. In fact, London is set to have the largest all-electric bus fleet in Europe by the end of 2017. The routes from Waterloo station to Victoria (route 507) and from Waterloo station to London Bridge (route 521) will both run using a 51-strong fleet of single-decker exclusively electric vehicles by the end of the year.


Of course, two bus routes going electric is not going to solve London’s air quality problems. But this is part of a much bigger push that includes converting all 300 single-decker buses in the center to zero emissions by 2020 at the latest, and converting all double-decker buses to hybrid by 2019.

Mayor Sadiq Kahn has also announced an entirely new, fourth superhighway bringing segregated lanes to Southeast London for the first time. London’s cycle superhighways have already shown they can deliver 70% increases in cycling. We were also glad to see that London’s most famous shopping street, Oxford Street, should soon become traffic free, as 62% of retailers and visitors voted in favor of the idea.

Berlin watches its emissions

A youthful population, a history of development built on public transport rather than cars and a reputation for embracing the new and trendy, it is not surprising to find that Berlin is at the forefront of technological change when it comes to sustainability.

Leon Bublitz

In 2008 and before everyone else even talked seriously about the issue of climate change, the German capital created a low-emission urban zone of 88 km² in the city-center, the Umweltzone, impacting about a third of its inhabitants. All gasoline and diesel vehicles that do not meet the established criteria are prohibited, and if this doesn’t reduce traffic per se, it increases the pressure to switch to environmentally friendly vehicles or to retrofit with exhaust after treatment technology, like particle traps.

Germany’s capital is also the city of shared and electric mobility, as driving a personal car is not a sign of success here. The city already had more than 400 electric car-charging points and four hydrogen refueling stations in 2015, and a major expansion of this infrastructure is still being deployed.

Most Berliners would rather rent a car or an eScooter to get to work during the week or drive to the lakes on Sunday, but mostly they will simply ride their bikes. With its broad central boulevards, the geography of Berlin is very much suited to public transport and bikes rather than private cars. Berlin has recently announced a plan to build a dozen “super highways” reserved for cyclists. These won’t just be ordinary roadside paths, they will be completely segregated, unbroken longer-distance routes that will allow Berliners to get in and out of the city center much faster and more safely  —  without ever having to mix with cars. Amsterdam and Copenhagen better watch out, Berlin wants to regain its title of Europe’s bike-friendliest city.

Paris wants to ban diesel and gasoline from its streets

Ilnur Kalimullin

Paris is known for taking progressive measures to fight climate change. In December of 2015, delegates from every nation gathered in the City of Lights to sign the historic COP21 climate agreement. But in March 2017, the city suffered through a period of intense smog, during which the air over the city was dirtier than the air over Beijing and blotted out the view of the Eiffel Tower, much of which was attributable to the exhaust emissions from conventional cars.

Andreas Selter

In response, the city of Paris put aggressive new procedures in place to limit the number of cars powered by internal combustion engines on its streets and eventually move beyond polluting cars. The French capital has already banned cars more than 20 years old, which have rudimentary pollution controls, from entering the city and instituted a plan that prohibited cars with license plates ending in even or odd numbers on alternating days. It also converted streets that used to run along the banks of the Seine into pedestrian walkways and bike paths.

The individual car, “is no longer the pattern of today.” The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, repeated in several statements that diesel and petrol vehicles will be forbidden to drive in the capital by 2030. Regrettably, this will not be a formal prohibition, but a goal. “The question of prohibiting or not prohibiting does not make sense. Today we set a course,” Mayor Hidalgo has said.

In Copenhagen, you’d better be biking

The Danish capital has set itself the target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 and aims for 50% cyclist traffic by 2025. The city has already reshaped many streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly, introducing innovations such as traffic lights that give bikes priority and thus cut journey times.

Copenhagen may have a justified reputation as a cyclists’ paradise, but over the past three years, the proportion of bike commuters on the city’s roads has been going down. Since 2014, the share of cyclist commuter trips has dropped from 45% in 2014 to 41% today. The modal share for bikes for all journeys, meanwhile, has stagnated. Currently 24% of all trips in the Danish Capital Region are by bike, a rise of just 0.2% since 2012.

Shane Rounce

Because the city wants to stay in the race, it plans to invest 134 million euros in 10 years. A new urban furniture has been imagined, including railings to avoid setting foot on red traffic lights and bins inclined towards the cycling tracks.. The transport of bicycles is also free on regional trains and the generalization of the speed limit at 40 km/h as well as the disappearance of car parks completes the plan to dissuade motorists.

Oxford bets on electric

Oxford in the UK wants to become the world’s first carbon emission-free city by 2035, with a plan to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles from the city center over the next 20 years. Six streets will be closed to thermal vehicles by 2020, including buses and taxis. The area will gradually be extended to the entire city center and to all vehicles by 2035, and users of electric cars will soon pay less for parking. This clever move is partly a response to the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the center of Oxford, levels which have been dropping but remain dangerously high.

Sidharth Bhatia

“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,” says John Tanner, one of the Oxford City Council board members.

Total cost of the measure: about 7 million pounds (7.9 million euros), for the city, county, bus companies, taxis, and other companies. An equivalent amount will be spent on infrastructure, including surveillance cameras capable of reading license plates so fines can be automatically sent to offenders.

Oslo attacks its car-parks

Oliver Cole

When a progressive political alliance took power over Oslo’s city council in October 2015, they made one of their first priorities a greener and more liveable environment in the city, and it wasted no time selling off its coal investments, creating a renewable district heating system and committing to slashing greenhouse gas emissions (to 95% of 1990 levels) by 2030.

The city still had to do something about transportation, which accounts for 61% of the city’s CO2 emissions  —  a full 39% coming from private cars. Oslo had already boasted the world’s highest proportion of electric vehicles, and ran a third of its bus fleet on fossil fuel alternatives.

The next idea on the table was pretty simple: ban cars from the city center by 2019. When businesses and other political parties protested against this ban, Oslo chose a new strategy; ban parking instead. Oslo’s transformation will be rolled out in several phases. In stage one, all on-street parking within Ring 1 will be removed, as well as some parking in surrounding areas deemed to be “in conflict with bike development.” Car parks in and around the central zone will stay, but many other on-street parking spaces will be freed up for alternative uses. Stage two, in 2018, will see the pedestrian network extended, and close several streets to private traffic; shared space will be introduced, and 40 miles of bike lanes built. Voluntary and ambitious, just as we like it!

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