Four cities just cracked down on diesel vehicles – but we need to go much further

Nasty stuff, this. Image: Getty.

Four of the world’s biggest cities are to ban diesel cars from their city centres by 2025, in order to improve air quality. The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City announced the plans at the C40 Mayors’ Summit on climate change. This bold move could lead other cities to take action, and help to accelerate a shift away from diesel.

Diesel engines are seen as major contributors to air pollution in cities, as they exude nitrogen dioxide and tiny particulates. These pollutants have a known impact on human health: they can cause heart attacks, breathing difficulties and even premature death.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, stated that: “We no longer tolerate air pollution and the health problems and deaths it causes, particularly for our most vulnerable citizens”. Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, said that the city would also increase investments in public transport, so as to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, said that he aimed to remove all cars from the city centre and work with governments and manufacturers to promote electric vehicles and cleaner transport options.

Ditch the diesels

Government attitudes had started to turn against diesels anyway. A year ago, the (now ex-) French prime minister, Manuel Valls, admitted that the promotion of diesel cars – on the basis that they are more fuel efficient and emit less CO₂ than petrol engines – had been a “mistake”. His comments reflected a wider shift in thinking in Europe, which has been accelerated by Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” scandal. Indeed, Paris already had plans in place to ban older diesels from 2020.

These measures are likely to increase pressure on other nations – including the UK – to phase out diesel vehicles, or at least introduce clean air zones. London’s ultra-low emissions zone, for example, aims to stop the dirtiest diesels driving through the centre of the city. The question now is whether this will be tightened up further and whether other UK cities such as Birmingham and Manchester will act to reduce air pollution too.

In the wake of the VW scandal we should see tougher testing of emissions and fuel efficiency by regulators which better reflects real-world driving conditions. If this requires diesel-powered cars to be fitted with systems that clean up their emissions, they may become more expensive. This would, in turn, affect their popularity.

Bad reputation. Image: Hamza Daoui/Flickr/creative commons.

It’s as well that European nations are taking firm action to curb the use of diesel vehicles. For years now, diesels have been pushed by European manufacturers and governments as a supposedly clean alternative to petrol cars, producing lower tail-pipe CO₂ emissions and offering better fuel efficiency. Diesel car sales account for just short of 50 per cent of the European car market, in stark contrast to other major markets where diesel sales are tiny.

For example, in the UK, company cars (which account for about half of annual car sales) have a “benefit-in-kind” tax for drivers, related to the car’s CO₂ rating, which makes diesels more attractive from a tax point of view. As a result, diesel sales in the UK have grown dramatically in recent years. European governments have effectively subsidised diesels and, in doing so, have slowed a much-needed transition to cleaner vehicles.

Playing catch-up

Fortunately, a range of hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) have been developed to meet this need. Japanese and American car makers have gone down two different technological routes. Japanese car makers – and Toyota in particular – went down the petrol hybrid route, while US firms such as General Motors and Tesla have gone into pure electrics and plug-in hybrids.

With the exception of Renault-Nissan and BMW, European producers are now particularly exposed to a diesel downturn – it seems they may have placed the wrong technological bets. Petrol hybrids and electric cars could well emerge as winners from the VW debacle – something which Tesla founder Elon Musk has been keen to stress

Toyota is trying to play catch up on EV development while Jaguar Land Rover also recently announced a belated electric push with its I-PACE launch. Meanwhile, VW is trying to clean up its act in the hope that 25 per cent of VW sales will be EVs by 2025.

But so far, apart from Tesla’s in roads into the premium market, sales of EVs have been something of a disappointment. EV take up has only really happened on a big scale in Norway, thanks to substantial government support.

Gap in the market. Image: Simopala/Flickr/creative commons.

This is partly down to huge over-hyping early on: despite several years of high expectations for EVs, it’s only now that the first genuinely viable models have appeared on the market in the form of the BMW i3, Nissan Leaf 2 and Tesla Model S.

Other factors slowing the take-up of electric vehicles could include a lack of confidence in electric vehicle technology and performance, uncertainty over the lifespan of expensive batteries, a lack of awareness of the incentives that make electric vehicles cheap to run and a relative lack of choice, which results in the perception that electric vehicles are not particularly stylish.

Yet we can be hopeful that these attitudes will change. We’ll see a lot of new mass market EVs in 2017, with significantly greater range. Models such as the Tesla Model 3, the Chevrolet Bolt, as well as designs from Renault and Nissan, will be game-changers.

Let’s be clear. Diesels should be restricted in cities to improve air quality. Policy needs to favour public transport, as well as alternative car technologies such as hybrids and EVs. Viable models are already here; it’s time for governments to start encouraging and supporting citizens to use them.The Conversation

David Bailey is professor of industry at Aston University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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.