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A ban on diesel cars isn’t the best path to cleaner air

Environmental activists stand in front of the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig, Germany, on Feb. 22 as the court began considering whether authorities should ban diesel cars from cities to lower air pollution. dpa via AP
Environmental activists stand in front of the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig, Germany, on Feb. 22 as the court began considering whether authorities should ban diesel cars from cities to lower air pollution. dpa via AP dpa via AP

A recent decision in Germany's top administrative court to uphold cities' right to ban diesel passenger cars is a knee-jerk reaction to the emissions scandal that has plagued Volkswagen. Some may call it a courageous attempt to save our planet, but this ruling is a hyper-politicized decision that will not accelerate progress toward an emissions-free transportation system.

Here in California, some legislators want to ban the commercial sale of vehicles that run on combustion engines by 2040. But millions of dollars continues to fund research to develop legitimately eco-friendly diesel engines. And despite the 2015 VW scandal, diesel emits a fifth less carbon dioxide than petroleum engines.

Michael K. Dorsey.jpg
Michael K. Dorsey

It is shortsighted to assume that diesel bans will solve climate challenges, without considering the energy used in other forms of transportation. Some believe such bans will accelerate the push into electric vehicles, but this ignores accessibility, affordability and the impact on poor and working-class families.

The average cost of an EV is about $50,000 while the median income is only $72,919. Diesel cars are $13,000 less than an electric vehicle and $4,000 less than a hybrid. Often regarded as today's leader in EV technology, even Tesla has struggled to create a vehicle available at a price suitable for the middle class.

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Also, the U.S. only has 17,000 EV charging stations, including 4,000 in California, while more than half of all gas stations offer diesel fuel. Electric vehicle sales aren't growing. In California, where EVs are more popular and the infrastructure is more widespread, they add up to just five percent of sales and mostly to wealthier, repeat customers.

As part of a $1 billion settlement between VW and the U.S. government, the city of Sacramento is poised to receive $44 million to build charging stations, offer an electric car sharing service and to provide other benefits. Yet only one third of the funds are set aside to help disadvantaged residents.

Banning diesel fuel is not the silver bullet to deliver cleaner California air. Instead, policy makers and environmental advocates must aim public money to develop automotive technology that makes our air cleaner but is also affordable to all. If we want to encourage carless, walkable neighborhoods, we must provide a wide range of transportation choices especially in our most vulnerable communities.

While diesel bans may happen overnight, California must be practical and protect marginalized communities harmed first and most by unjust climate and transportation policies.

Michael K. Dorsey is a founding board member of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland. He can be contacted at mkdorsey@professordorsey.com.

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