Should cities ban diesel?

New Delhi's diesel haze. This is fine. Image: Getty.

Diesel, once hailed as a relatively clean, environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, is increasingly being recognised as a threat to public health. After decades of support and the promotion of the widespread belief that diesel releases less CO2 when burnt than petrol, sales of diesel vehicle in the UK have increased steadily.

However, the truth is that some old diesel cars emit other pollutants by up to 20 times as much as their petrol equivalents, especially on congested city streets. To fix this, four capital cities – Paris, Athens, Madrid, and Mexico City – have agreed to remove diesel vehicles from their centres by 2025. Now, there are calls to ban them from London too.

The white skies in Paris over the winter break did not signal snow. Rather, drivers faced two days of mayhem after concern over an unsettlingly low and dense layer of smog caused the authorities to restrict traffic in the city by banning vehicles with odd license-plates one day, and even ones the next. In return, public transport in Paris was free for those two days. Comparatively, when the pollution in London reaches terribly unhealthy levels, Plume Labs (who monitor air quality in London) advise Londoners to “avoid all physical activities outside”. There is something ironic about being advised to shun life-prolonging activities in order to prolong your life.

A recent study by the King’s College, London, Environmental Research Group for Transport for London and the Greater London Authority investigated the health impacts of poor air quality in the capital. They estimated that, in 2010, approximately 140,743 years were shaved off people’s lives as a result of air pollution in the city – the equivalent of 9,416 (normal length) lives lost. Diesel exhaust, which contains harmful gases (such as nitrogen dioxide), fine particulates, and soot, is a major cause of reduction in air quality. 

Doctors Against Diesel are taking a stand to change this. Last December, hundreds of medical professionals and environmental campaigners amassed along Euston Road, reportedly one of London’s most polluted thoroughfares. The group gathered to call on the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to impose a ban on diesel in the city centre and to gradually curb its use in the suburbs. Professor Jonathan Grigg, who is both a consultant paediatrician at the Royal London Hospital and a researcher into the effects of pollution on children at Queen Mary University of London, told the Guardian that “if you’re going to design something that would effectively deliver a toxic substance into the lungs, you couldn’t do better than the diesel soot particle”.

This is a popular sentiment. The progressive UK think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has stated that “it is likely that diesel cars will have to be completely phased out on London’s roads over the next decade in order to reach compliance with safe and legal levels of air pollution”.

Diesel has been in the headlines since last September, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) accused Volkswagen of having knowingly installed ‘defeat devices’ in 482,000 Volkswagen and Audi diesel engines in the US alone since 2008, to devastating effect. The software allowed the cars to pass the required emissions testing in laboratories, but in the real world they released harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) at “40 times more pollution than emissions standards allow”.

In London, Sadiq Khan responded to ‘Dieselgate’ by demanding that Volkswagen replace the £2.5m that the city would have accrued in Congestion Charge returns. Now he’s gone two steps further – imposing an extra £10 toxicity charge for the most polluting vehicles in the city centre, and recommending the development of a “detailed proposal for a national diesel scrappage scheme for government to implement”, as well as declaring that, from 2018, London will obtain no new pure diesel buses. Khan also unveiled his contribution to the anti-diesel effort, which takes the form of the first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered double-decker bus, and promised that future single-decker buses will be zero emission.

While these measures are promising, London still has a long way to go before its air is fit to breathe. Some 90% of NO2 emissions from road transport in central London are the result of diesel engines and, warned Helena Molin Valdés, head of the United Nations’ climate and clean air coalition, “soot from diesel vehicles is among the big contributors to ill health and global warming”.

However, Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality. Its website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.

Its current plan is to formulate more detailed proposals from the opinions collected during the consultation, particularly regarding the creation of an Ultra Low Emission Zone and whether it should come into force in 2019 or 2020. Ultimately, the mayor will make this decision, but his choices must be based on the responses received during the three consultation stages that TfL plans to complete this year.


Less than a week into 2017, a monitor on Brixton Road had noted that NO2 concentration levels had surpassed 200 micrograms per cubic metre, which European Law dictates must not occur more than 18 times per year. Last year, ClientEarth, a non-profit activist organisation that specialises in environmental law, won a High Court ruling against the government over its failure to adequately handle the issue of the UK’s air pollution by citing an EU directive that allowed them to push the government to prosecute people who drive old diesel vehicles in urban zones. Mr. Justice Garnham stated that ministers were aware that pollution modelling was being based on the deceptive results of faulty lab tests instead of recorded road emissions. Although the government denied that it would appeal the decision, at Prime Minister’s Questions Theresa May claimed, “We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it”.

Alan Andrews, one of ClientEarth’s lawyers, spoke to a Commons Select Committee, and conceded that a blanket ban on diesel cars would ignore the nuance of the situation. Instead, he supported Khan’s proposal for a government-backed “range of measures to disincentivise diesel, including a scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle exise duty”. Khan has also called for new legislation that updates the Clean Air Act to reflect the dangers posed by diesel in the 21st century. The last Clean Air Act, passed in 1956, came about as a result of the Pea Souper – otherwise known as the Great Smog of London. As viewers of Netflix’s popular series, The Crown, will tell you, though, there was nothing great about the air pollution plague.

There are fears that leaving the EU will allow the UK to repeal the emissions laws that hold the government accountable for increases in air pollution – particularly due to diesel exhausts. However, with the recent court cases and public scrutiny due to the dangerously low air quality in London, it seems probable that the government will support almost any means necessary to make cities less hazy. Although this does not mean the immediate implementation of a diesel ban, it is likely alternative fuel sources will be phased in alongside actions such as the rollout of an Ultra Low Emissions Zone.

While this in itself will not eradicate the issue of air pollution in the capital as diesel vehicles are not the only sources of pollutants, the effects of such legislation will not be insignificant and, combined with other green policies, are a step in the right direction towards a cleaner future.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016-17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at our parent title the New Statesman, where this article was originally published.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.