Drivers in Brussels, the capital of the European Union and of Belgium, have 16 years to switch to an alternatively-fuelled vehicle under legislation adopted by the city’s government on Friday.
The measures is one part of an ambitious climate plan approved by the Brussels Capital Region. It is the first of Belgium’s three self-governing states to adopt a climate plan – required by national law to plot a course for meeting the country’s commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
Brussels has some of the worst air pollution in Europe as a result of being one of the continent’s most congested cities for traffic. Over the past five years the city has rolled out a plan to clear the city center of traffic by creating what will be Europe’s largest pedestrian zone once it’s completed. Already the main traffic artery through the center of the city, Boulevard Anspach, has been converted to a tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare without a car in sight.
Under the plan, traditional combustion engines running on diesel fuel will be banned by 2030, and those running on petrol fuel five years later. The measures in the whloe climate plan will see CO2 emissions in the city drop 40% by 2030 and make it completely decarbonised by 2050 – in line with an incoming European Union goal.
The European Commission has proposed a goal of reaching ‘net zero’ emissions in the EU by 2050. Though the proposal has so bar been blocked by Poland, it is expected that this veto can be overcome at a European Council summit in December where Poland and other Eastern European countries will be offered loads of cash as part of a Just Transition Fund, to ease the transition for coal-dependent regions.
The Brussels plan would put the city well ahead of the EU’s plans. In 2011 the Commission published a strategy document suggesting a ban on traditional combustion engines in city centers by 2050. Since then, Paris, Madrid, and Copenhagen have announced they will ban diesel cars within the next decade. London, Rome and Barcelona have promised to remove all internal combustion engine cars from city centers by the end of the next decade.
According to research by the Bloomberg news service, 24 European cities accounting for 62 million people are banning diesels over the next decade – and 13 of them will ban both diesel and petrol.
The long lead time before these bans take effect is designed to signal to consumers that they should now start buying hybrid or electric cars, or cars running on alternative fuels like biofuels or hydrogen.
But there are concerns that these bans are being enacted without an accompanying strategy to get enough alternative fuel infrastructure in place to make people comfortable buying these new vehicles. There have also been complaints that the cities are not accompanying these bans with major investments in their public transport systems.
While Brussels boasts a metro system that is efficient and reliable, it effectively only has two lines and does not serve large areas of the city. The buses and trams are slow and sit alongside cars in the city’s notorious traffic jams. And unlike in the northern Belgian region of Flanders, cycling in Belgium’s capital remains an unpleasant and sometimes unsafe experience.
Brussels’ climate plan contains provisions to expand public transport in the city. The government has already rolled out an S-bahn commuter rail system reopening some of the city’s closed train stations. They have also pledged to complete a long-promised third metro line under Boulevard Anspach – first promised in the 1970s with the supposedly temporary placement of a “pre-metro” underground tram in its place. New cycle paths and pedestrian tunnels have also been promised.
But the biggest obstacle to lowering car use in Brussels remains the tax system. Belgium has the highest income tax in the world, but company cars are not taxed. To get around the high income tax rate, most private companies pay employees with a car – whether the employee wants it or not. Alternatively fuelled cars are usually not available from these company car fleets.
The climate plan envisions a system where cars would be taxed according to their use rather than their ownership. But a change in the tax structure is only possible in Belgium’s notoriously dysfunctional federal parliament.
Consumer organizations representing drivers have been critical of the plan for not having enough detail on how citizens are supposed to get around without combustion engines. The Belgian automotive federation Febiac says the plan will be impossible to implement without a clear plan, which is currently lacking.
“Already today, Brussels is lagging far behind, for example in the deployment of the essential charging infrastructure,” the organization says. “Today there is no plan, no measure, no budget to reduce this lag. Just as there is no clarity as to how citizens and businesses will have their e-mobility efforts treated – or rewarded – for tax purposes.”
The current high price of electric cars has also been raised as an obstacle, with Febiac accusing the Brussels government of putting the financial burden for meeting this target on consumers.
However the price difference is set to fall dramatically son. A recent report predicted that electric cars in Europe will triple by 2021. That same year, a new EU law will take effect that requires car manufacturers to produce fleets that emit a maximum average of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre. This will force them to produce more electric cars, lowering the price for consumers.