The Low Emissions Zone of Barcelona is in effect for two years this January 1, but it cannot be said that you are in luck. This 95 square kilometer perimeter without polluting cars has since this Saturday with some new features, such as the veto of older trucks and coaches, but 2021 also ends with a rebound in emissions linked to the full recovery of traffic that casts a shadow over the balance .
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“This measure is necessary, but not sufficient. We have said this from the beginning,” recalls Xavier Querol, a CSIC researcher specializing in air quality. The Low Emission Zone removed unlabeled cars and motorcycles – the most polluting – from circulation in 2020, but it was above all the impact of the pandemic on traffic that allowed nitrogen dioxide levels to be drastically reduced in 2020 (NO2) and microparticles (PM1). Thus, it was possible to meet the EU targets for these emissions for the first time.
At the end of 2021, and in the absence of data for December, everything indicates that the average required by the EU of a monthly maximum of 40 µg / m3 will be met again, but what worries environmental organizations and researchers is that, with the recovery of traffic almost to the levels of 2019, this limit was once again exceeded in October and November. “Private traffic has already recovered its pre-pandemic levels and public transport is still 20% below previous levels, so we will have to be attentive to how global mobility evolves in the coming months”, recently analyzed Miquel Ortega, responsible of the website for the analysis of emissions data Contaminació Barcelona.
Entities such as Ecologists in Action are calling for a tightening of the Low Emissions Zone, including, for example, a toll to access it or, at least, the impact on vehicles with yellow labels (so far those that have prohibited circulation are those that they do not have a DGT label). The Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB), the administration responsible for this policy, even included in its mobility plan the withdrawal of cars with yellow labels in 2022. But it was finally postponed without a date.
Something similar to the first effect of the Low Emission Zone has occurred with this group of vehicles –the diesel ones registered between 2006 and 2013 and those for gasoline purchased between 2000 and 2006–. When it was announced, three years before finally coming into force, the cars and motorcycles that were going to be affected, those that do not have a label, were already being progressively reduced (today they are 1.37% of the circulating fleet). With those with yellow labels, whose holders know that sooner or later they will have to withdraw from circulation, their reduction has also been a constant in recent years. They have gone from accounting for 46.6% of total vehicles in 2017 to 24.9% in 2021.
Trucks and coaches, the novelty
As of this Saturday, the Low Emissions Zone is updated with the veto of N2, N3 and M2 vehicles that do not have a DGT label. These are trucks from 3.5 tons, trailers, coaches and buses. However, at the last minute the Generalitat, the AMB and the Barcelona City Council reached an agreement with the carriers to grant them six months of margin, until June, if they present an affidavit confirming that they will dispose of the old vehicle in this period.
In any case, Querol questions that this restriction will have a notable impact on reducing emissions. Although these vehicles pollute much more than a car, the truth is that they do not usually circulate so regularly through the urban fabric of the city. “We have air quality problems especially in the Eixample district and the surrounding areas, and there are not too many trucks there”, reasons this researcher.
But this will not be the only novelty in the Low Emissions Zone in 2022. The other great news will be the expansion of this perimeter to other large cities, those with more than 50,000 inhabitants, which must also veto the most polluting vehicles before 2023 in accordance with state law. Some already have it deployed, such as Sant Cugat del Vallès, and another that will launch it this January is Sant Joan Despí.
“The rest will go through the process throughout the year, which entails passing it through the municipal plenary, participatory process, public exhibition …”, lists the socialist Antoni Poveda, vice president of the Mobility, Transportation and Sustainability Area of the AMB. These municipalities, which include Sant Boi de Llobregat, Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Badalona, Castelldefels, Gavà or Viladecans, aspire to Next Generation funds for their Low Emission Zones.
Less pollution, same traffic
“The levels of pollution by NO2 and PM1 have been reduced and this, taking into account that the traffic currently is sometimes similar and even some days higher than 2019, means that the Low Emission Zone is a success and the best tool to reduce emissions “, defends Poveda, who also attributes the spikes in October and November to long episodes of anticyclones. According to the Generalitat, the impact data for 2021 indicate that, since the measure was announced in 2017 until today, the average factor of Emission from the circulating park has been reduced by 20% in PM10 and 50% in NO2.
The main criticism from the neighborhood and environmental entities is that this reduction has not been at the cost of eliminating cars from circulation, but has been done through what they call the renewal of the park. In other words, those who had a car without a label have bought a new one to comply with the regulations and continue to travel by motorized vehicle. “Cars not only have an effect on air quality issues but also on climate, noise, the use of public space… It is not about staying the same but now with green-label cars, but about advancing in what the law said of mobility of 2003, to change towards the public transport and the bicycle ”, claims María García, from Ecologists in Action.
Since the pandemic broke out, the use of bicycles and scooters has exploded, but that of public transport remains far below. In the case of traffic, it depends on whether the volume is analyzed inside the city, at its entrances or in the rounds. On these latter roads, which are outside the Low Emissions Zone, the number of vehicles is higher if possible than in 2019, up to 3% or 5% on some days according to City Council data. Indoors, however, it usually ranges from 5% to 10% less.