Welcome to the future: What does the post-combustion engine era mean for our cities?

A car free day on the Champs-Elysee, Paris, May 2016. Image: Getty.

In 1879 Karl Benz was granted a patent for his internal combustion engine – and so began the era of the fossil fuel powered motor vehicle. Less than 150 years later, the end of that era is now in sight. We will all, quite literally, be able to breathe easier as a result.

But while a series of announcements in recent weeks by car manufacturers and politicians has signaled that the end of petrol and diesel cars is inevitable, the intended pace of change is still far too slow.

Air pollution, much of it the by-product of emissions from vehicles, causes more than 4.2m premature deaths each year. The same emissions that poison our air are also causing climate change. C40’s research has shown that the world’s largest cities need to peak emissions by 2020, with a big focus on their transport sectors, if there is any hope of delivering on the Paris Agreement and preventing catastrophic climate change.

There has been some progress in recent months in recognising the need for action on air pollution. Perhaps the most significant is that the UK and France have both pledged to ban the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and China is now set to follow suit.

The European Union has set a 2050 target of reducing emissions from the transport sector by 95 per cent. To deliver on this ambition means that every car, van, bus and lorry on the streets of European cities need to be zero emissions by 2050. As the average age of vehicles is 15 years, no diesel or petrol vehicle should be sold after 2035. A number of European cities are leading this drive, with Oslo aiming to provide 100 per cent renewable-energy powered public transport by 2020, and Amsterdam by 2025.

It is, today, Asian nations that are leading the revolution in low and zero carbon vehicles at scale: 98 per cent of global electric bus sales have been in China and Shenzhen, will achieve a fully electric bus fleet of 17,000 vehicles by the end of this year.  Overall, there are more electric vehicles on Chinese roads than any other country. India has also set a truly ambitious target to electrify all new vehicles by 2030, thereby setting a benchmark for other countries.

Cities are at the forefront of global efforts to address air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport. London for example has brought forward its plans for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone to come into effect in 2019, charging the most polluting vehicles to enter the city. Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently announced that new taxis must be zero emissions capable in 2020 and that all buses will be zero emissions by 2037. London and 14 other C40 cities have gathered in Wuhan, China this week to learn from each other’s ideas and strategies for moving towards a cleaner mobility future.

These commitments from national and local governments need to be matched by those from industry. Several car manufacturers have made major announcements which reflect their realisation that the future of cars is electric. Volvo has pledged that from 2019 all new cars it launches will be electric or hybrid. Volkswagen, the world’s biggest car maker, is investing €20bn to offer an electric version of all its 300 models by 2030.


This is laudable, but still a long way from where we need to get to. As Volkswagen shifts away from diesel to hybrids in their smaller cars, it's important to recognise that a hybrid may have lower NOx (a major pollutant that is particularly dangerous to human health) but it often has the same CO2 emissions as the equivalent diesel car. Whilst this shift may improve air quality, it doesn’t address the climate impacts of that vehicle.

A zero-emission car is an even better choice – yet there will be a significant carbon footprint involved in the manufacture of that vehicle. The car makers need to take meaningful steps to decarbonise their production and supply chains.

Whilst car manufacturers are making significant commitments, it is evident that they are reacting to the leadership of mayors and other political leaders determined to address air quality and climate change.  When Erik Jonnaert, Secretary General of the European car industry association (ACEA) warns that, “We seem to go back to the Middle Ages where the cities were defining how things needed to be done,and instead called for an EU-wide approach to air quality, I seriously doubt it was because he hopes a Europe-wide policy would be stricter than the policies of Paris and London.

Ultimately, private cars will never be the best climate and clean air solution. Research shows that the dust and micro-particles released from tyres and brakes account for as much as 50 per cent of particulate matter pollution in our cities. While electrifying our vehicles is an important step in tackling air pollution and climate change, citizens will ultimately need to move beyond private cars and shift to mass transit – buses, trains, car share – and good old fashioned walking and cycling. Not only will this make our streets safer, quieter and more pleasant places to be, it will transform how our cities function for their citizens. Fewer cars mean more space for cyclists, pedestrians and the public to enjoy.

It is hard to believe that less than 150 years ago, no city on earth had ever seen a motor vehicle on its streets. Our cityscapes have become so dominated by the infrastructure and presence of cars. The shift to low and zero emission vehicles is now irreversible and will reshape our urban centres, maybe starting with the cities of Asia this time around.

Yet the reality of the climate crisis facing our planet means we need to imagine a transformation of our city streets that may be even more radical than the shift since Karl Benz first patented his internal combustion engine. A new era is truly just beginning.  

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.