“We will look back on diesel cars in the same way we view cigarettes and asbestos insulation”

Mmmm, tasty. Image: Getty.

I am sure that that within a few decades we will look back on diesel cars in the same way we view cigarettes and asbestos insulation. Future generations will ask how something so toxic to public health and to the environment could have been allowed to be pumped into our air, our streets, our homes, our schools.

Air pollution in cities causes more than 3m premature deaths globally each year. The evidence of a causal link between diesel emissions and asthma is becoming overwhelming: I am one of the many people who has developed asthma in adulthood because of air pollution. And research released just last week by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, found that more than 800 schools, nurseries and colleges are in areas where levels of nitrogen dioxide breach EU legal limits.

Mayors of many of the world’s great cities are taking bold action to tackle the scourge of air pollution. Paris, Mexico City and Madrid announced at the 2016 C40 Mayors Summit their commitment to ban diesel vehicles by 2025. Oslo will pedestrianise the centre of the city by 2019. San Francisco has just announced requirements that every parking space in new buildings must be equipped with electric vehicle charging capability. And Chinese cities such as Shenzhen and Nanjing converting entire fleets of buses and taxis to electric.

Yet it is important to acknowledge past mistakes. Many European governments incentivised consumers to purchase diesel cars over recent years, because their lower CO2 emissions contribute less to global warming.

Now the evidence is clear that diesel cars release more nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide (NOx), emissions which contribute significantly to air pollution in cities and are more damaging to human health than emissions from petrol vehicles. Tests designed to identify cleaner vehicles have been shown to be largely useless, and the actual on-road emissions of most cars exceed health-based limits. Some have used this as evidence that politicians and campaigners concerned about climate change are naïve.

In fact, all this proves is the need for more radical and urgent action. If we are serious about tackling climate change, we can’t substitute bad with less bad: we need our cars to be zero emissions. The urgency of the climate crisis means that window of opportunity for incremental changes has passed.


To deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement, and limit global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius, now requires fundamental shifts in how our cities operate. The debate around the relative climate and public health benefits of petrol versus diesel is a perfect example. The reality is that all combustion engine vehicles release greenhouse gasses, which contribute to a greater or lesser degree to global warming and air pollution.

Whilst we waste time arguing over the relative benefits of each, we get closer to the point of no return for catastrophic climate change. C40’s research Deadline 2020, which examines exactly what the great cities of the world must do to deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement, shows that we must  move as quickly as possible to zero emission vehicles, such as electric and hydrogen-fuelled cars, on the streets of our cities.

Politicians, scientists and campaigners must acknowledge when policies we believed to be effective, prove not to have worked. Pursuing well meaning, but ineffective policies will reduce public trust in climate action, whilst also wasting resources and effort that could be channelled into policies that do work.

Tokyo has a tiny number of diesel cars on its roads, because national and city governments have spent decades working together to disincentivise them. It is not surprising that Japanese car manufacturers are leading the way in developing the next generation of hybrid and electric cars. In just the same way, using policies such as road tax rates, scrappage schemes for high polluting vehicles and low emission zones based on the NOx emission of cars, mayors in every city around the world could accelerate the shift to zero emission vehicles.  

A key feature of the C40 network is that cities can share their experiences of what has worked to reduce their emissions, but also crucially what hasn’t worked. This allows mayors to implement policies faster, learn from the mistakes of others and reduce the cost of action compared to if they were acting alone.

Mayors of our cities deserve praise for their efforts to tackle climate change and air pollution. They are providing unique global leadership, through C40, the Global Covenant of Mayors and within their own cities.

Yet now is the moment to seize the initiative. Public concern about air pollution has never been more acute. Now is the moment for mayors be even more radical.

Mark Watts is executive director C40 Cities.

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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.