C40's Executive Director Mark Watts: What does the post-combustion engine era mean for our cities?

By Mark Watts, C40 Executive Director

This article was originally published here on CityMetric.

In 1879 Karl Benz was granted a patent for his internal combustion engine – and so began the era of the fossil fuel powered motor vehicle. Less than 150 years later, the end of that era is now in sight. We will all, quite literally, be able to breathe easier as a result.

But while a series of announcements in recent weeks by car manufacturers and politicians has signaled that the end of petrol and diesel cars is inevitable, the intended pace of change is still far too slow.

Air pollution, much of it the by-product of emissions from vehicles, causes more than 4.2m premature deaths each year. The same emissions that poison our air are also causing climate change. C40’s research has shown that the world’s largest cities need to peak emissions by 2020, with a big focus on their transport sectors, if there is any hope of delivering on the Paris Agreement and preventing catastrophic climate change.

There has been some progress in recent months in recognising the need for action on air pollution. Perhaps the most significant is that the UK and France have both pledged to ban the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and China is now set to follow suit.

The European Union has set a 2050 target of reducing emissions from the transport sector by 95 per cent. To deliver on this ambition means that every car, van, bus and lorry on the streets of European cities need to be zero emissions by 2050. As the average age of vehicles is 15 years, no diesel or petrol vehicle should be sold after 2035. A number of European cities are leading this drive, with Oslo aiming to provide 100 per cent renewable-energy powered public transport by 2020, and Amsterdam by 2025.

It is, today, Asian nations that are leading the revolution in low and zero carbon vehicles at scale: 98 per cent of global electric bus sales have been in China and Shenzhen, will achieve a fully electric bus fleet of 17,000 vehicles by the end of this year.  Overall, there are more electric vehicles on Chinese roads than any other country. India has also set a truly ambitious target to electrify all new vehicles by 2030, thereby setting a benchmark for other countries.

Cities are at the forefront of global efforts to address air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport. London for example has brought forward its plans for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone to come into effect in 2019, charging the most polluting vehicles to enter the city. Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently announced that new taxis must be zero emissions capable in 2020 and that all buses will be zero emissions by 2037. London and 14 other C40 cities have gathered in Wuhan, China this week to learn from each other’s ideas and strategies for moving towards a cleaner mobility future.

These commitments from national and local governments need to be matched by those from industry. Several car manufacturers have made major announcements which reflect their realisation that the future of cars is electric. Volvo has pledged that from 2019 all new cars it launches will be electric or hybrid. Volkswagen, the world’s biggest car maker, is investing €20bn to offer an electric version of all its 300 models by 2030.

This is laudable, but still a long way from where we need to get to. As Volkswagen shifts away from diesel to hybrids in their smaller cars, it's important to recognise that a hybrid may have lower NOx (a major pollutant that is particularly dangerous to human health) but it often has the same CO2 emissions as the equivalent diesel car. Whilst this shift may improve air quality, it doesn’t address the climate impacts of that vehicle.

A zero-emission car is an even better choice – yet there will be a significant carbon footprint involved in the manufacture of that vehicle. The car makers need to take meaningful steps to decarbonise their production and supply chains.

Whilst car manufacturers are making significant commitments, it is evident that they are reacting to the leadership of mayors and other political leaders determined to address air quality and climate change.  When Erik Jonnaert, Secretary General of the European car industry association (ACEA) warns that, “We seem to go back to the Middle Ages where the cities were defining how things needed to be done,” and instead called for an EU-wide approach to air quality, I seriously doubt it was because he hopes a Europe-wide policy would be stricter than the policies of Paris and London.

Ultimately, private cars will never be the best climate and clean air solution. Research shows that the dust and micro-particles released from tyres and brakes account for as much as 50 per cent of particulate matter pollution in our cities. While electrifying our vehicles is an important step in tackling air pollution and climate change, citizens will ultimately need to move beyond private cars and shift to mass transit – buses, trains, car share – and good old fashioned walking and cycling. Not only will this make our streets safer, quieter and more pleasant places to be, it will transform how our cities function for their citizens. Fewer cars mean more space for cyclists, pedestrians and the public to enjoy.

It is hard to believe that less than 150 years ago, no city on earth had ever seen a motor vehicle on its streets. Our cityscapes have become so dominated by the infrastructure and presence of cars. The shift to low and zero emission vehicles is now irreversible and will reshape our urban centres, maybe starting with the cities of Asia this time around.

Yet the reality of the climate crisis facing our planet means we need to imagine a transformation of our city streets that may be even more radical than the shift since Karl Benz first patented his internal combustion engine. A new era is truly just beginning.