Nine countries say they’ll ban internal combustion engines. So far, it’s just words.

Plugging in.
Plugging in.
Image: AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
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The internal combustion engine appears to be on its last lap. More than nine countries and a dozen cities or states have announced what the media has called “bans” in the last few years. Copenhagen mayor Frank Jensen wants the city to end all new diesel cars starting next year. Last December, Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City said they would  remove diesel cars and vans by 2025. Norway will phase out conventional cars by 2025, followed by by France and the United Kingdom in 2040 and 2050, respectively.

Yet despite all these commitments, no country has actually passed a law prohibiting anything. ”There is literally not a single ban on the books in regulatory language that is enforceable in any auto market in the world,” Nic Lutsey, director of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), said by phone. That doesn’t make them meaningless. Politicians, most of whom will be out of office by the time any bans take effect, can’t tie their successors hands decades into the future. US president Trump, for example, is already busy trying to revoke California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own pollution standards and electric vehicle mandates. If successful, Trump would negate bills such as the one proposed by the state legislature last year to end manufacturing and registration of new gasoline cars in California by 2040.  

But the rhetoric is telling carmakers to get ready once the technology is ready. “These governments are signaling to the world that they need to move to zero emission vehicles to meet their climate and air quality goals,” he says. “All their [emissions] models say the same thing: They can’t meet their climate and emission goals without zero-emission vehicles as quickly as possible.”

Even without specific laws, countries are relying on carrots and sticks. Most of the so-called “bans” on combustion engines are actually restrictions on the sales of new diesel vehicles, along with financial incentives or penalties to accelerate sales of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles in the coming years. European countries have passed the most aggressive policies to tip the scales against gasoline and diesel. Norway, where 52%  of new car sales were electric in 2017, gifts EV buyers thousands of dollars in perks such as free or subsidized parking, tolls, and charging, as well as generous tax breaks. In the UK, where buyers also get tax breaks for clean vehicles, London is expanding an “ultra low emission zone,” imposing a £12.50 ($16.39) daily fee for cars deemed too polluting (generally conventional vehicles registered after 2005). These standards will go into effect next April, and only tighten over time. 

Elsewhere the pronouncements are, at best, aspirational, said Lutsey. Most amount to “sound bites, ministry quotes, responses to media questions after speeches, and general web spin,” he said. India’s 2030 target for all-electric vehicles is contingent on falling costs. China has merely started “relevant research” for a timeline to phase-out internal combustion engines. Even Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has called Britain’s and France’s 2040 phase-out of fossil-fuel powered cars “the right approach,” refused to pin down a date. 

The effects are rippling through the auto industry regardless. In the last two years, carmakers have rushed to roll out plans to electrify their vehicles. Daimler will spend $11.7 billion building 10 all-electric and 40 hybrid models with plans to electrify its entire lineup, reports Reuters. Volkswagen AG aims to electrify its 300 or so models by 2030. Ford says it’s “all in” on EVs, while GM is adding two more electric models alongside the Chevy Bolt, eventually ditching the combustion engine altogether. China’s Volvo is only releasing electric models starting in 2019.

Yet it will be decades before these new cars can displace their conventional counterparts. Carmakers must design new vehicles, clear existing stock, and wait for the fleet to turnover as drivers trade-in old cars (in the US, that’s about 11 years). It takes about 18 years for just half of vehicles on the road to comply with a new law, estimates FleetCarma. As the average vehicle staying in circulation longer, cars being bought today will easily run into the proposed bans in some countries.

Politicians’ aversion toward internal combustion engines may already be driving down diesel vehicles’ market share and resale value. While Volkswagen’s pollution fraud is one factor, diesel bans seems to be having an effect. The ICCT reports the share of new diesel registrations has fallen 8% since 2015 in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK. In the UK and Germany, diesel cars lost between 6% to 17% of their resale value in the first half of 2017. Many expect the same scenario to strike gasoline cars soon.

Change will come relatively fast in cities, and countries like Norway, but the global trajectory will be slow and steady. It won’t be until 2025 or so that the average cost of an EV will fall below that of a gasoline or diesel vehicle (it’s already far cheaper to operate an EV in most cases). When that happens, however, policymakers will be free to pass the laws they’ve been promising whenaffordable technology to replace combustion engines is ready.

Quartz reviewed all the announcements restricting the use of internal combustion engine vehicles around the world. None of them amounted to legal bans, but most set targets and timeline for phase-outs of diesel and then gasoline engines between 2025 and 2050. A summary of each announcement is below.