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

Automobiles for export park at a port in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. Japan's exports grew for the first time in 15 months in December as robust Asian demand fueled recovery in the world's second-biggest economy. Exports jumped 12.1 percent from a year earlier to 5.4 trillion yen ($60 billion) in the month, the finance ministry said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
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  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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.

JurisdictionWhat’s restricted?Source
Copenhagen, DenmarkBan new diesel cars from entering the Danish capital

Copenhagen’s mayor said last year he will introduce legislation to ban diesel cars registered after 2018. “It’s not a human right to pollute the air for others. That’s why diesel cars must be phased out,” he told Danish newspaper Politiken

 Rome, ItalyBan diesel vehicles from city center by 2024Mayor Virginia Raggi announced a plan to ban diesel cars from city center by 2024. “If we want to intervene seriously, we have to have the courage to adopt strong measures,” she wrote on Feb. 27 on her Facebook page.
 NorwayTarget of no new gasoline or diesel vehicle sales by 2025In 2016, Norwegian politicians agreed to an ambitious goal of phasing out all conventional cars: “There is an agreement on a target of zero new fossil-fuel cars sold as from 2025. No outright ban, but strong actions required,” tweeted Norway’s then-Environment and Climate Change minister Vidar Helgesen in 2016. Today, nearly 40% of all cars sold in Norway are electric or hybrid.
Athens, Paris, Madrid, Mexico CityEnd use of all diesel vehicles by 2025At a 2016 conference, city leaders committed to “stop the use of all diesel-powered cars and trucks by the middle of the next decade” and incentivize electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles.
ParisBan on diesel in city by 2025. Ban on all internal combustion vehicles by 2030.Paris pledged to ban diesel engines by 2025, and phase out all combustion-engine cars by 2030. “This is about planning for the long term with a strategy that will reduce greenhouse gases,” said Christophe Najdovski, head of Paris transport policy in October 2017. “Transport is one of the main greenhouse gas producers … so we are planning an exit from combustion engine vehicles, or fossil-energy vehicles, by 2030.”
 IndiaNo new gasoline or diesel vehicles by 2030 (if economical)In 2017, the Indian government announced the “ambition, that by 2030, all vehicles sold in India may be electric-powered.” The energy department’s plan will depend on the costs of electric cars falling far enough to make it economical.
 IrelandNo new gasoline or diesel vehicle by 2030The country will ban sales of all gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2030. Cities such as Dublin are required to only buy electric buses after 2018.
 IsraelBan import of all gasoline and diesel fuel cars by 2030. Only natural gas and electric vehicles permitted.Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told a conference last February that “from 2030 onwards, the State of Israel will create alternatives and will no longer allow the import of cars that run on gasoline and diesel fuel. … We intend to reach a situation in which Israel’s industry will be based on natural gas, and most importantly, transportation in Israel will be based on natural gas or electricity.”
Brussels, BelgiumDiesel ban in Belgian capital by 2030The government of Brussels agreed to introduce a diesel ban in Belgium’s capital by 2030. Restrictions on gasoline cars are being considered.
 NetherlandsAll vehicles emission free by 2030A Dutch parliamentary coalition agreement stated in October 2017 that “the aim is for all new cars to be emission-free by 2030. Phasing out the tax incentives for zero-emission cars will be brought into line with this ambition.” (page 39, document in Dutch)
 FranceNo new gasoline or diesel vehicle sales by 2030The French government’s 2017 Climate Plan, pledges to “take greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles off the market by 2040: stopping sales of petrol or diesel cars will encourage car manufacturers to innovate and take the lead on this market.”
 United KingdomNo sales of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. Reduce national vehicle emissions to zero by 2050.The UK government committed to end sales of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. Instead of completely banning petrol and diesel vehicles, it states (paywall) the “majority” of new cars and vans sold by 2040 should be zero emissions, and all should have zero emissions “capability” (such as hybrids). By 2050, the UK says it will reduce vehicle emissions to virtually zero by 2050 with “almost every car and van” zero-emissions by 2050. Scotland’s Parliament announced more ambitious plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2032.
 TaiwanNo new non-electric motorcycles by 2035 and four-wheel vehicles by 2040The country’s Environmental Protection Administration plan would ban all sales of nonelectric motorcycles and four-wheel vehicles by 2035 and 2040, respectively.
 ChinaNo date given on phase-out of combustion enginesChina is developing a long-term plan to phase out combustion engines, according to Xin Guobin, a government official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. “Some countries have made a timeline for when to stop the production and sales of traditional fuel cars,” he told Chinese state media last September, noting the ministry had started “relevant research” to finalize a timeline. “Those measures will certainly bring profound changes for our car industry’s development.” Experts anticipate (paywall) the country will impose the phase-out ban alongside carbon controls expected around 2030.
 GermanyBan on sale of new diesel cars expected. Considering ban on all internal combustion engines by 2040 in line with Britain and France.Germany has not set a timeline but chancellor Angela Merkel said in Aug. 2017 that the country must eventually join other European countries banning new diesel cars.” She called plans by Britain and France to phase out fossil-fuel powered cars by 2040 “the right approach,” while adding, “I don’t want to name an exact year.” German cities are already pushing for their own diesel bans.
US states: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts,
New York, Oregon,
Rhode Island, and Vermont. Canadian provinces:
Reduce national vehicle emissions to zero by 2050. 

“We will strive to make all passenger vehicle sales in our jurisdictions ZEVs as fast as possible, and no later than 2050.”

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