‘Low-emission zones under fire, but they are effective for soot’
Low-Emission Zones (LEZ) are dividing opinion in Belgium. Their results are not as impressive as many had hoped. The Flemish socialist party sp.a calls them asocial, causing a row with its green coalition partner in Ghent.
Are LEZs effective or not? The Antwerp measurements give a mixed picture. After a year, the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM) found that there is no difference between the decrease in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and that of the rest of Flanders. For soot, the VMM did find a significant additional decrease in the Antwerp LEZ.
A similar result in 250 cities
This picture is reflected in the LEZs in more than 250 European cities, according to an overview by the NGO Transport & Environment. A limited result for NO2 and particulate matter, more pronounced reductions for soot.
Mobility organization VAB already pleaded to halt LEZ expansion until further notice. But advocates of LEZ’s say they do work and blame the poor results on cheating car manufacturers and drivers.
Ghent: change of course
The city of Ghent introduced a LEZ at the beginning of this year. Yesterday, the city college at length discussed the zone’s planned expansion. Without success. It shows the deep division on the sensitive topic.
The reason for the Ghent dispute is the change of course of coalition partner sp.a. Under its new chairman, Conner Rousseau, the socialists suddenly show less enthusiasm for LEZs. These would mainly target weaker groups who are less able to buy a new, more environmentally friendly car.
“We want to push the pause button with the sp.a as far as the LEZs are concerned,” Rousseau stressed in parliament. At the Flemish level, the party is going to submit a decree ‘that puts an extension or tightening of the LEZs on hold’. Sp.a first wants extra investments in public transport or alternatives to polluting cars.
The proposal causes annoyance to the Green party. “It bothers me immensely that a number of colleagues who took the initiative themselves are now coming back to it,” said Groen party leader Björn Rzoska in parliament.
The division in Ghent shows how sensitive the theme is. Not only at the SP.A, but also at Open VLD, opinions are divided and there is internal pressure not to continue with the expansion.
CD&V also emphasizes that the expansion needs to be thoroughly investigated again. “But,” says CD&V alderman Mieke Van Hecke, “we are loyal implementers of the administrative agreement. If you sign an agreement, you have to carry it out.”
Tampering on different levels
Nils Hooftman, expert vehicle missions of the Mobi research group at the VUB, says tampering on different levels is to blame for the disappointing results of LEZs. “In Ghent and Antwerp, diesel cars are allowed to enter from Euro 5, while on the road they emit more NOx than those with Euro 3 or 4.
The concept of these standards has been eroded by tampering. The concept of these standards has been eroded by tampering. Only the very latest diesel engines can claim to be quite clean. The effect will not be felt for several years to come.”
Cheating with soot filters and Adblue
In addition to fraud by manufacturers, says Hooftman, tampering by consumers also comes from the consumer. They sometimes switch off the after-treatment for NOx so as not to have to fill up with Adblue. European research also shows that 5 to 7 percent of soot filters have been removed illegally.
“A soot filter has an efficiency of 99,9 percent. If you remove it, an engine emits a thousand times more soot particles. If one diesel driver removes it, that completely cancels out the effect of the 99 others’.
The efficiency of soot filters – in so far as they remain in place – is the main argument in favor of a LEZ, says Frans Fierens, VMM’s air quality expert. For the soot alone, the oldest diesel cars have to be removed. The health impact of these toxic particles is the greatest’.
Another argument is the spillover effect, says Fierens. Anyone who only occasionally comes to Antwerp, Ghent or Brussels will perhaps opt for a cleaner car. People argue that their city could be next.
The introduction of low-emission zones probably gave an extra boost to the accelerated shift from diesel to petrol after Dieselgate. It is essential that the cities continue to play that pioneering role’. A LEZ is not a beatific solution, says Fierens. It is a step in the process towards zero emissions. Ultimately that’s the way to go.