Modern internal combustion engine vehicles are ready to be part of the solution for improved urban air quality

Some European Member States have made announcements regarding their national ambitions to eventually implement bans on Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered cars. We will explain not only why new cars equipped with today’s advanced emission control technologies should be part of the solution for a better air quality, but also why the models of tomorrow will continue to improve air quality for years to come.

As technology continues to improve, the future of personal transport in cities will comprise a range of technologies from ‘conventional’ petrol and diesel to electrified – mild, full or plug-in hybrid – and electric cars powered by batteries and even fuel cell models. These will all be needed to replace older, more polluting vehicles from our European roads and improve air quality in our towns and cities.

Most modern cars running on liquid fuel, whether they are ‘conventional’ or hybrid, emit very low levels of pollutants and have little impact on air quality. Those certified as Euro 6d-TEMP or 6d were tested to demonstrate that their emissions meet the limits on the road, in real driving conditions.

graph Euro 6 and NOx emissions

This chart shows nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel cars (Source: ACEA/JAMA PEMS data consulted 17 July 2020).

graph Euro 6 and PN

This chart shows the number of particles from petrol cars (Source: ACEA/JAMA PEMS data consulted 17 July 2020). Both charts show the progression of real-driving emissions of cars certified to the latest standards.

The Euro 7 standards currently being discussed in the European Commission are likely to reduce pollutant emissions even further. If introduced in the mid-2020s using the most advanced emission control technologies, these standards will help reduce overall road transport emissions by replacing most of the existing vehicle fleet.

Based on penetration of previous steps, shown in the graph below, this change in the fleet could be expected in the first half of the next decade. By doing this, the regulatory authorities are ensuring that local air quality will improve. Indeed, the positive impact on emissions of regulations based on real-world driving is already being seen.

Market share european standards

This figure shows the market share of passenger cars by emission standards (Source: ICCT European Vehicle Market Statistics Pocketbook 2019/20)

In the meantime, more sustainable, alternative and renewable low-carbon fuels should be used for cars with ICEs. This will guarantee lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the existing as well as the new vehicle fleet. The combination of sustainable fuels and more efficient cars with very low pollutant emissions is already helping to increase the speed of the transition towards zero emissions.

In spite of this, a number of European countries have proposed bans on sales of new fossil fuel vehicles or are considering incentive programmes exclusively for cars with zero tailpipe emissions. The primary reason is that it will help them to achieve their national climate reduction targets. While this may have a certain impact, a more effective way of moving the emissions of the road transport sector towards zero in the shorter term would be to encourage faster fleet renewal.

This would promote cleaner cars and vans, including hybrids and clean internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles as part of the package. It would also guarantee removing older, more polluting vehicles from the roads, replacing them with cleaner vehicles in a sensible socio-economic way.

Furthermore, a fragmented introduction of the proposed sales bans would have a major impact in the European Single Market, causing confusion and potentially barriers for people to travel and to sell used cars within the European Union.

It is expected to be many years before zero tailpipe emission cars take the dominant market share of new vehicle sales by virtue of providing the qualities of ICE cars, having equivalent EU-wide life cycle emissions and by being cheaper. Until this point, the technology needed to meet Euro 7 regulations for pollutants as well as greenhouse gases should be fully utilised to help improve air quality in Europe and reduce GHG emissions from our continent.

Only a technology- and fuel-neutral approach to future vehicle legislation will create a variety of mobility offerings which suits every use case. This approach is also the only way to guarantee that an affordable solution is available to everyone looking to buy a new car.  Until zero tailpipe emission vehicles become the technology of choice for citizens across Europe, all technology choices should be supported and available to continue having a positive influence on air quality on the journey towards a zero emissions future.