France moves against diesel

France has set itself on course to displace diesel as the preferred fuel for private cars, with the prime minister describing French pro-diesel transport policy as ‘a mistake’ and announcing financial incentives to replace the country’s extensive diesel car fleet in order to tackle air pollution. The mayor of Paris has also announced plans to largely ban diesel cars, buses and trucks from the city by 2020.

In a speech at the end of last year, the French prime minister Manuel Valls announced plans to stop subsidising diesel cars. Valls said: ‘In France, we have long favoured the diesel engine. This was a mistake, and we will progressively undo that, intelligently and pragmatically.’

Earlier this week the French government announced that, from April, motorists with old diesel cars will also be offered subsidies to replace their vehicles. The incentives will amount to €10,000 for those who opt for an electric car. The government's plans include an index for all cars to assess their pollution. Only the cleanest vehicles will be able to enter restricted zones where air pollution is particularly bad. Cleaner cars will also have some access to free parking and use of bus lanes.

About 60% of cars in France are diesel-fuelled, and while the share of new diesel cars is falling, the dieselisation rate of cars sold in the first half of 2014 was still 65%. In addition, the French government owns about 15% of the carmakers Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroën.

Already in 2015, France has seen a narrowing of the taxation gap between diesel and petrol, although it still leaves diesel considerably cheaper than petrol.

Shortly after Valls’s speech last year, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced a package of measures to reduce car use in the city, increase pedestrian zones and double the number of cycle lanes. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, she said: ‘Today 60% of Parisiens do not have cars compared with 40% in 2001. Things are changing quickly. My message is clear – I want to end diesel in Paris by 2020, if possible beyond the Périphérique (the inner city ring road).’

France’s action, which mirrors similar action in other European countries, signals a shift in transport thinking from reducing greenhouse gases to reducing the air pollution responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year. Diesel has been favoured because it emits less CO2 than petrol, but T&E believes this has been misunderstood. T&E’s clean vehicles manager, Greg Archer, said: ‘In reality the average diesel car bought in the EU has the same CO2 as the average gasoline car. But the diesel has higher lifecycle emissions – in part because over its lifetime it will be driven much further on cheaper fuel. Diesel is not a low-carbon solution.’

T&E’s French member France Nature Environnement welcomed the decision to phase out diesels, but said it came in a contradictory context given a decision by France’s environment minister to approve a programme of road building.