Will zero-emission zones improve air quality? Maybe not…

There are persistent misunderstandings about the effect of local zero-emission zones on air quality. Clean air is cited as the argument for introducing these zones. But that argument is not as strong as it seems.

Clean air is better for our health

Yes, clean air is better for our health. Future generations will live longer, and young people will grow up healthier. The effect on health depends on where you grow up in the world. And that effect is also determined by indoor air quality.

Air quality is complicated

Air quality is a mix of different particulates, each with its own effect on our health. Zero emission zones look primarily at NO2, PM2.5, and PM10. The latter two, in particular, are ‘bad’. Traffic is one of the contributors to air pollution.

Dutch TNO advocated a different approach in 2022; the current approach no longer works. It is essential to reduce specifically and per location the types of particulate matter that have the most significant effect on health. And that is more than just traffic.

Less NO2. Not less PM2.5 and PM10

Emission-free driving primarily brings down NO2. But, addressing city logistics alone does little to achieve this. You must address all ‘burners’: all traffic (and all wood smoke). Then NO2 can be reduced by another half, and we will reach the new WHO standards. Every municipality can model that down to the street level (and the residents there). And with that data, reduce or divert traffic in polluted streets. Generic, citywide measures are an ‘overkill’.

Emission-free driving does not reduce harmful emissions of PM2.5 and PM10. Those emissions come from tires, brakes, and road wear. The Dutch Academic Workshop on Healthy Living Environment (GGD) investigated it. The conclusion: in addition to making road traffic emission-free, focus on less road traffic. A simple message.

The effect of zero-emission zones in city logistics on air quality and, thus, on our health is limited. Therefore, all traffic must become emission-free, the other sources of air pollution must also be addressed (especially wood smoke), and we must focus on much less road traffic and specific places in our cities. Then we will meet the new WHO standards.

Small business owners

What is not under discussion is the effect on the wallets of small business owners. They have to pay a disproportionate amount. Cleaner inner cities should not be at the expense of these small entrepreneurs. Municipalities determine whether and when they set up zero-emission zones. However, vehicles for which no zero-emission alternative exists will receive an exemption.

During the global City Logistics Conference, there were debates about the Dutch zero emission zones and what they will deliver in climate change and health. Especially now that the energy mix is not yet fully ‘renewable’. Zero emission in the city is not zero emission anywhere else.

From zero-emission to zero-impact

Anyone who still thinks that zero-emission zones are great for our health is naive. Should we stop implementing zero-emission zones in our cities? Of course not … cleaner air really is better for everyone. But, the contribution of driving electric to stop climate change should be paramount; city logistics should be done with fewer CO2 emissions. The best energy is the energy you don’t use.

Even better is reducing city logistics traffic in residential areas and inner cities. City logistics should not only be cleaner but less and safer. In addition to zero emission zones, municipalities must regulate, encourage and facilitate less and safer city logistics. ‘Zero impact’ city logistics really affects SDGs.

Walther Ploos van Amstel.

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