Welcome to the post-diesel era. And now what?
This article is also available here in Spanish.

Welcome to the post-diesel era. And now what?

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Author | Jaime Ramos

Mobility has experienced a revolution this decade, targeting the very heart of the industry. The centenary supremacy of combustion engines is swaying, with the general boom of new forms of alternative mobility and, specifically, electric cars.

Diesel-powered models are the first to feel the effects of this change. Manufacturers have used up almost all the improvement margins in terms of their technology. The final blow for these engines has come with the anti-diesel policies, which seek to extinguish them because of the harmful effects of their emissions, not only for the environment, but also on health. Scandals through the manipulation of pollution figures, have ended with the coup de grâce at a time when the industry is looking for a new direction.

The scope of this trend is global, but the situations are different depending on what part of the world we look at. Although countries such as Japan removed them from their roads some time back, authorities in the European Union have set themselves the mission of putting out the flame that is keeping diesel alive as soon as possible. This will not be easy after decades of directly or indirectly promoting diesel engines.

The diesel alternatives being considered in terms of implementation are:

Battery electric vehicles

They operate on electricity and are plugged in to charge their batteries.

Fuel cell electric vehicles

They are powered by hydrogen, which is converted to electricity in the fuel cell rather than being burned. They do not produce pollution, as they only emit water vapor and hot air.

LPG or CNG vehicles

These types of engines emit 75% less NOx compared to most diesel engines, and the refueling stations for both gases are abundant. This makes LPG and CNG vehicles excellent alternatives to diesel and petrol.

EUROPEAN DIESEL IN FIGURES

The good intentions ended up taking shape in more specific measures after the serious Dieselgate scandal, in which the Volkswagen group was found to have concealed the real emissions of its vehicles. This has led to a series of penalties being applied to these models. In this regard, city councils in major cities such as Madrid or Paris, and even entire countries such as Norway, have considered banning them in the medium term.

In 2023, 12,847,481 cars were sold in Europe. Notably, for the first time, electric vehicles surpassed diesel vehicles in market share, holding 15.7% (up from 13.9% in 2022) compared to diesel’s 11.9% (down from 14.5% in 2022).

Overall, sales of diesel engines have been declining for the past eight years. In 2012, diesel engines represented 55% of vehicle registrations. So far in 2024, sales of diesel vehicles have totaled 28,227 units, representing a market share of 12.4%, which is a decline from last year’s figure of 14.4%.

DIESEL IN EUROPE: FACTS

Is diesel banned in Europe?

Contrary to what some people think, diesel fuel has not been banned in Europe. Not yet. On the contrary, it is still readily available and used by millions of drivers each day, not to mention it will remain vital in order to power generators, tractors and countless industrial applications.

However, the adoption of the stringent Euro 6 standard, coupled with the expansion of zero-emission zones and the reduction of certain subsidies, mean that diesel cars will die a slow death. Developing new diesel vehicles is becoming tougher and tougher, to the point that most manufacturers are phasing them out instead of investing billions just to keep them alive for a few more years.

At the end of 2023, the Euro 7 standard was approved, setting the NOx limit for diesel vehicles at 80 mg/km. It is initially scheduled to take effect in 2025 for light vehicles (cars and vans) and in 2027 for heavy vehicles. However, its implementation will be delayed by two more years, until 2027 for light vehicles and 2029 for heavy vehicles.

Changes include that new vehicles will have to meet emissions requirements for a longer duration and/or distance. While the Euro 6 standard set the limit at 5 years or 100,000 km, the Euro 7 standard requires these levels to be maintained for 10 years or 200,000 km.

However, the approval of the Euro 7 has given the industry some breathing room regarding diesel, particularly for small models.  The initial proposal, which required a 50% reduction in NOx emissions, would have necessitated the adoption of catalytic converters that would increase costs to the point of making manufacturing unfeasible.

When will diesel be banned in Europe?

The European Commission, in any case, has proposed an effective ban on gasoline and diesel engines by 2035. If adopted, that would be the end of the line for those vehicles.

Some countries have set their own goals, however. Denmark wants to end sales of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2030, and the city of Copenhagen will test extensive zero-emission zones from 2023 that will mean a de facto diesel ban.

Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, has approved a regulation banning petrol and diesel cars from entering the city center to reduce pollution and emissions. This regulation will take effect on December 31, 2024.

Other countries may probably follow as electric vehicles gain market share and banning diesel becomes less of a political issue, although nothing is set in stone and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the semiconductor crisis may delay a final and complete ban for passenger cars.

In any case, existing diesel vehicles will still have to be serviced, and so far, nobody wants to approach that delicate topic yet.

WHAT WILL BE THE BENEFITS OF GETTING RID OF DIESEL?

Cities and urban environments will be the first to notice the difference. The elimination of the layers of pollution is an attempt to alleviate the 400,000 + premature deaths per year in Europe as a result of transport-related emissions. This also entails high healthcare costs. At a continental level, we could be talking about hundreds of billions of euros.

Freeing ourselves of diesel models would mean reducing the effects that nitrogen oxides (NOx and NO2) or suspended particles (PM) have on health. It will also entail structural changes in urban mobility. We can safely say that we are just about feeling the advantages of electric, connected, shared and autonomous vehicles.

Another concern is trucks, which account for 25% of road transport emissions in the EU. In 2022, approximately 327,000 new medium and heavy motor vehicles in Europe were diesel-powered. Undoubtedly, diesel is the most widely used fuel in this segment, as it represented around 96% of the market share last year.

Given its prevalence, European legislators have established CO2 targets for heavy vehicles that will phase out nearly all sales of new diesel trucks by 2040. Manufacturers will be required to reduce the average emissions of new trucks by 45% by 2030, 65% by 2035, and 90% by 2040.

A PAINFUL REVOLUTION FOR OUR PURSES?

The benefits may not be so attractive, depending on locations. Although the advantages of doing away with diesel are undeniable from a scientific point of view, the withdrawal policies have encountered strong political and economic opposition in some countries.

The reasons for this lie in revealing who will assume the costs of this transition in mobility. It will, undoubtedly, affect manufacturers and therefore, workers in the automotive sector. Likewise, the punishment by the authorities in relation to diesel, translates, in some countries, regions and cities, into an increase in the price of fuel.

All of this has an impact on the most underprivileged social groups, who cannot pay the price of joining this revolution. Perhaps the owner of SUV with a V6 diesel engine can afford to renew their vehicle when the time comes; but many low-income workers will really struggle when it comes to replacing their modest subcompact cars that are very cheap to maintain but with a high replacement cost. And we are talking about millions of vehicles.

Perhaps programs such as MOVES III, which incentivize electric mobility, particularly the purchase of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, could significantly boost the transition towards zero-emission vehicles. These grants range from 7,000 to 9,000 euros for commercial vehicles up to 3,500 kg, and from 4,500 to 7,000 euros for cars, providing substantial financial support for consumers.

Reducing this negative effect involves an inclusive strategy for the transport sector. The doubt remains as to whether the market will be able to adjust with subsidies and support or if new public transport plans will be required or even new and fresh policies, like those that normally emerge during emergency situations.

Images | iStock/Vladographer, Marius Matuschzik, Ernest Ojeh

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