Low Emission Zones

Low Emission Zones White Paper

Published: 2020-07-01

1. Introduction

Many EU countries have been struggling with high concentrations of particles (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air, and road traffic is often an important contributor in city areas. The German Environment Agency, for example, estimates that road transport alone is responsible for 60% of NO2 concentration in cities. In Paris, transport accounts for 65% of NOx emissions and 36% of PM10.

Pollution levels in EU cities reduce people’s health and may lead to premature deaths. According to the European Environmental Agency (2017), about 430,000 people die prematurely in Europe due to exposure to PM 2.5, and approximately 78,000 died prematurely due to NO2 exposure. The EU Air Quality Directive legally demands that cities that exceed the allowed limits for air pollution, develop action plans and implement necessary measures to reach the limit values. A Low Emission Zone (LEZ) is one measure many cities implement to reduce the number of highly polluting vehicles and it has recently been gaining momentum in Europe where more than 250 municipalities have taken such measures. Air quality in many urban areas is still below the EU limits set in 2008. The Diesel-scandal which started in 2015 shows several car companies are not ‘cooperating’ in contributing to clearer air. With the automobile industry cheating their way through emissions testing protocols, the trust is gone and governments are forced to take their own measures.

The importance of LEZ has also been recognised at EU level by their inclusion in the newest draft guidelines for “Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans”, which is not only a widely used planning tool but also a precondition for access to certain EU funding programmes. Despite Dieselgate, powerful automotive interest groups continue to oppose stricter emission standards and LEZs in Brussels and national EU capitals claiming that these guidelines do not contribute to clearer air. 

A Low Emission Zone (LEZ) is an administrative measure, often initiated by a municipality, that is meant to regulate, often restrict, entry of polluting motorised vehicles into central city areas and thus improve quality of life. Most of the LEZs only affect diesel busses and lorries but increasingly they affect regular cars too, especially diesels. Zero Emission Zones (ZEZ) go further by excluding all internal combustion engine vehicles. ZEZs thus only allow electric vehicles and are increasingly relevant for several major cities (e.g. London and Paris ) that have carbon neutral ambitions for the future. 

LEZs already started in 1996 in the three biggest cities in Sweden and were mostly aimed at stimulating older heavy trucks and buses to retrofit their polluting diesel engines with emission control devices, i.e. catalysts or particulate filters. In 2009 Amsterdam started with the first LEZ guarded by automated ANPR (Automated Number Plate Recognition) cameras which was renewed and upgraded in 2020 to also include mopeds. Initially, the reason for introducing the Amsterdam LEZ was to comply with EU emission regulations which were blocking residential and commercial expansion of the city. Only later, quality of life issues became increasingly relevant. Since 2008 Germany has had a nationwide LEZ system based on stickers attached to the windshield. The license plate based green / red stickers are issued based on the EU engine qualification of the registered vehicle. 

In all EU countries, it is politically up to the municipality, mostly major cities, to introduce an LEZ. However, it is based on a national legislation and EU engine and emissions qualifications. This article describes the background and operational details of several LEZs in European countries and lists some of the advantages and disadvantages of the various systems. 

2. Sweden

Sweden was the first country to implement LEZs, as a measure to reduce pollution from vehicles and to stimulate retrofitting diesel trucks and busses with exhaust emission control devices. From 1992 Swedish cities could legally ban heavy duty vehicles from entering “environmentally sensitive areas” (*5). In 1996 Sweden started with LEZs in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. Retrofitted vehicles carried official vehicle inspection stickers required for LEZ entry. In 2006 the individual regulations of Environmental Zones in different municipalities in Sweden were replaced by a national regulation and incorporated in the existing traffic regulation. The new regulation aimed to harmonize the requirements for different municipalities, for the benefit of transportation companies working on a national scale.

From 1 January 2020 municipalities are able to introduce three different kinds of LEZs. It will be up to cities themselves to decide whether and where low-emission zones should be applied. According to Environment Minister Karolina Skog: “Children’s right to breathe clean air takes priority over the right to drive all kinds of cars on every single street. We are now giving the municipalities the powerful tool they have long been requesting so that they can tackle hazardous air pollution.”(*6). In 2020 Sweden had LEZs in: Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Lund, Helsingborg, Umeå, Uppsala and Mölndalen. 

LEZ (Miljözon) in Gothenburg with text “Emission limits for heavy vehicles”.

All the Swedish LEZs have to follow the national regulations but it is up to the municipality to decide if they want to implement an LEZ and to agree on the geographical extent of their LEZ.

  1. The first type of LEZ regulates heavy-duty vehicles (lorries and buses). This type of LEZ already exists in eight cities mentioned above.
  2. The second type of LEZ sets standards for regular cars. Initially, diesel cars that meet the Euro-norm 5 and 6 emission standards are allowed access. But on 1 July 2022, the standards will be made stricter, allowing only Euro 6 diesel cars. The same applies to hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids with diesel engines. Petrol-driven cars will have access if they meet Euro 5, or better. This also applies to hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, natural gas vehicles and E85 vehicles. Cars with better environmental performance, such as electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles, may also drive here.
  3. The third type of LEZ sets the highest standard. This zone only allows purely electric cars, fuel-cell cars and gas-driven cars that meet Euro 6. Similarly strict standards also apply for heavy vehicles (*7).

The rationale behind increasing the standards for vehicles allowed access to the LEZs is that several Swedish cities still struggle to meet the  minimum air quality standards established by  the EU. Together with other countries they received warnings from the EU court. In Stockholm 94% of traffic is performed by LDVs (Light Duty Vehicles, i.e. passenger cars and light commercial vehicles). LDVs are responsible for 62% of the traffic related PM emissions and 46% of the NOx emissions (data Stockholm Stad 2017), which is the reason to also restrict access of LDVs when implementing measures to reduce air pollution (*8).

Vehicles exempt from the LEZ regulations are (Stockholm Stad 2018):

  • Vehicles used for transport of disabled/sick persons
  • Emergency vehicles 
  • Military vehicles 
  • Veteran vehicles 
  • Vehicles on gas/ethanol

Although not yet compliant with EU regulations, air quality in Stockholm is continuously improving, and much of this is due to vehicle fleet renewal. Since 1996, the LEZ has banned the most polluting heavy vehicles from driving in Stockholm’s inner city. A national framework determines which heavy vehicles to ban, announcing the successively stricter requirements years in advance. This advance notice gives operators time to plan their fleet, which helps to reduce their adaptation costs and facilitate compliance. 

Heavy vehicles today contribute just over half the nitrogen oxide emissions from transport in Stockholm, but comprise less than 10 percent of traffic. The year 2021 will mark an important step for further improving air quality in Stockholm’s inner city: Heavy vehicles will need to comply with the Euro 6 emission standard, which reduces NOx emissions per kilometer more than 10-fold compared to the current Euro V requirement. Busses operating in Stockholm already largely comply with this future requirement (*9).

The LEZs in Sweden are enforced by random inspection by the traffic police by checking the license plate and thus the registration data of the vehicle. This includes the engine type and retrofitted emissions improving technology.  Fines for violations are SEK 1000, roughly € 93 or USD 100. The compliance ratio with the regulations in Swedish LEZ zones is high i.e. 90 – 95% according to Trafikverket, the Swedish Transport Administration (*10). The compliance with the existing regulations varies somewhat from year to year. The level of enforcement is one factor influencing the compliance. In Stockholm the police reduced their control activity in the LEZ, which may have influenced the level of compliance. 

The Stockholm LEZ has been evaluated for the year 2000 (*11). The average age of both busses and trucks (obviously diesels) have been reduced as a consequence of the LEZ. This shows that major cities can play a key role in upgrading vehicles, engines and emission technology as is elaborated on below. Emission modelling gave an emission reduction for the HDV (Heavy Duty Vehicles) fleet of 40% of the fine particle emissions (mostly soot) and 10% reduction of the NOx emissions. The lower reductions for NOx is partly explained by the possibility to retrofit the vehicle with particle filters which would not reduce NOx emissions. The effect on NOx concentrations is much lower than the emission reduction since HDVs are only one of many NOx sources. 

Interesting is a comparison of the NOx reducing effects between the LEZ and congestion charging tax in Stockholm. Dispersion modelling gave a NOx reduction of 1.5% at Hornsgatan, a trendy street close to the center of Stockholm. In comparison the evaluation of the congestion charging gave a NOx reduction of 8% at the same location (*12). This is in line with the expectations since the congestion charging is not specific and affects considerably more vehicles. From 15 January 2020 Hornsgatan actually has a separate LEZ within the Stockholm LEZ restricting all vehicles to Euro 5 and higher and to Euro 6 from 1 July 2022.

2.1 LEZs and vehicle choice

Depending on their size and dominance over their hinterland, city regulations can impact the new and second hand car market considerably. Firms and households in the Stockholm region purchase one third of Sweden’s new vehicles, and they often sell the vehicles to other parts of the country within three years. Stockholm’s inner city is also the economic and social center of the region and attracts vehicles from a wide geography: every fourth Swedish vehicle visits the area at least annually, many come only a few times per year. So, regulations in Stockholm have a reach beyond the region itself. Stockholm also sees how possible regulation for air quality can have a negative long-term effect on emissions. This became apparent in 2018, when a public debate regarding a possible ban of diesel cars in central Stockholm – but also other factors and negative international news (e.g. the Diesel scandal) – contributed to a dramatic drop in the sales of new diesel cars in Sweden, substituted with petrol cars. From a climate perspective, the shift towards new petrol cars is problematic, because petrol engines are less energy efficient than diesel engines. Adding to this, in Sweden, diesel also contains a larger share of biofuel than petrol.

Ultimately, to really reduce greenhouse gas emissions, high uptake of zero-emission vehicles and a strong reduction in urban car use is preferable to continued use of Euro 6 petrol and diesel cars in an LEZ. Stockholm has not decided on any zero-emission zone yet. The announcement of a zero-emission zone plan – and the specifics involving the how, when, and where – may encourage zero-emission vehicle uptake and charging infrastructure, lower second-hand values of other vehicles, encourage new distribution solutions, and so on. However, the costs for vehicle owners, businesses and visitors can be substantial and need to be weighed against the benefits. Some aspects to consider in limiting these costs and the impact in general would be to include sufficient pre-notice periods, the potential impact to local streets versus regional traffic flows, integration with other policies, and the alternatives drivers and vehicle buyers will seek under various scenarios. New policies and effective enforcement of a minimum vehicle occupancy for inbound city car traffic could also work.

One way to substantially lower the downside of an LEZ ban on entire Euro-norm vehicle classes is to charge vehicles varying amounts for driving in a zone depending on their emission level. Differentiated charge levels encourage uptake of clean vehicles among regular visitors to the zone, but also among other vehicle buyers via higher anticipated second-hand values for compliant vehicles. Charges discourage trips that are least valuable to travelers, and they provide a pay option to others who want more time to change vehicles or who make infrequent visits that are especially difficult to avoid. Stockholm already has some relevant experience here. During the first years of the congestion charge operation, some alternative fuel cars were exempt from paying the charges. This was intended to stimulate the market introduction of these vehicles and proved effective (*13). 

3. The Netherlands

The first LEZs in the Netherlands, in Utrecht and Eindhoven, date from 2007. These LEZs were focussed on keeping out older polluting diesel trucks and busses. There are currently 13 LEZs in operation in the Netherlands, mostly in the bigger cities (*8). Until 2020 there was no national policy towards LEZ in the Netherlands which resulted in a confusing patchwork of different regulations for each city. In 2015 Utrecht was the first city to ban regular diesel cars older than January 2001 (Euro(-norm) 3 and lower). Besides diesel vehicles Rotterdam also banned entry of petrol cars registered prior July 1992 (Euro 0) but relaxed this in July 2018. Currently (May 2020) only Utrecht, Amsterdam and Arnhem restrict diesel passenger cars and light commercial vehicles (LCV). 

As part of the total emissions reduction policy Utrecht also introduced a scrapping subsidy for older diesel vehicles from 2014 which amounted to an average of 1400 euro paid out for 3400 vehicles (*9). Additionally, Amsterdam also limits central city entry of diesel taxis (registered before 1 January 2009) and older 50 cc mopeds (registered before 2011, 4-stroke mopeds can apply for an exemption). This was instigated by TNO research and Nature that showed that two-stroke mopeds had more fine-particle emissions than a heavy truck (*14, *15). A further LEZ tightening in Amsterdam will be effective from 1 November 2020 when all diesel vehicles not complying to Euro 4 engine qualification or higher will be banned from city areas within the entire A10 ring-road area. This means a larger geographical LEZ which will also include Amsterdam-North which is river-separated from the rest of Amsterdam.

Since 2009 LEZ enforcement in Amsterdam has been fully automated. With intermediate upgrades over the years to the 2009 system, a completely new LEZ was put in place early 2020. Interestingly, the initial consideration for the Amsterdam LEZ was urban planning related. EU emissions regulations were blocking the residential and commercial expansion of the city. Only later negative health effects due to vehicle emissions and other pollution became more prominent. 

Enforcement is carried out by means of ANPR cameras placed all entry roads into the central city surrounded by the A10 ring. Licence plates of all vehicles entering the LEZ area are photographed, and digitised and checked against the vehicle registration database for engine criteria set by the municipality within the national LEZ policy framework. Image and other data of non-violating vehicles are be deleted from cameras and servers within 48 hours. Fines for the owner of the violating vehicle are 95 euros (65 for mopeds/scooters and 230 for trucks and busses). The violations are issued by the national violation processing centre of the ministry of justice (CJIB). 

In 2018 the planned introduction of an LEZ in the city of Maastricht triggered an interesting problem with far-reaching implications. Maastricht in the extreme south of the Netherlands gets many visiting vehicles from neighbouring Germany and Belgium. Data exchange with the Belgian vehicle register for possible LEZ compliance by the Dutch authorities was not a problem. This is done in both directions, also for LEZ violations of Dutch vehicles in Belgium. However, Germany, which has a very strict privacy legislation, refused exchange of data from its vehicle register to check LEZ vehicle compliance. As part of the EU Cross-border Enforcement Directive Germany readily exchanges vehicle owner data with the Dutch and other EU member state authorities in case of speeding or red-light violations. However, according to German law such data exchange can only take place after a violation occurred. Access to the German vehicle register is not possible to check if a violation took place. That is the reason why Germany operates a sticker system for LEZ enforcement (explained in the paragraph on Germany below) which can be visually checked, manually. In this way no data records are created of vehicles that are checked. LEZ compliance and enforcement in the Netherlands (but also in Belgium and Sweden) is based on automatically accessing and checking the vehicle register by means of fixed ANPR cameras, ANPR scanning vehicles or other devices. However, Maastricht was planning to implement a sticker based system similar to the German system to accommodate the above mentioned privacy issue. Many Dutch cars in the Maastricht area already had a German sticker due to the close integration of this part of the Netherlands with Germany and Belgium. The Maastricht LEZ currently only applies to trucks. LEZ implementation for diesel passenger cars is currently on hold due to this data exchange issue with Germany, since it would create an LEZ enforcement regime where only Dutch and Belgian registered vehicles are subject to fines.

To resolve the patchwork of different municipal LEZ regulations the central government in the Hague implemented harmonised national regulations and signage with two LEZ regimes effective from 2020 – 2025. There is a ‘light’ yellow LEZ which allows Euro 3 and higher diesel vehicles and a stricter green LEZ which only allows Euro 4 and higher diesel engines. Under these regimes there are no restrictions for petrol cars. Exemptions are available for campers (only if the owner lives in the municipality), old timers (+40 years) and vehicles of wheelchair requiring and handicapped persons (*16). 

The ultimate objective of the Dutch government is to harmonize the LEZ regulations on a European level, but unless the Dutch apply the sticker system and start enforcing manually, that will be challenging due to the German and other countries’ privacy concerns whereby vehicle data must be released prior to a violation confirmation. 

In 2025 when emission regulations are tightened one notch, the yellow Euro 3 LEZ signage will be phased out and Euro 4 (green) Euro 5 (blue) and 6 (purple) signage will apply.  

New 2020 Dutch signage indicates for which vehicles the LEZ applies
(with text ‘Euro norm and higher allowed’) 

4. Germany

Based on a federal standard, LEZs were introduced in Germany in 2008. Still politically each municipality decides on implementation. The first cities with an LEZ were Berlin, Hannover and Cologne. More than 58 LEZs are currently in operation (*17). Geographically, they are predominantly concentrated in former West-Germany and Berlin. With 13 mostly adjacent LEZ’s, the Ruhr-area has the largest concentration. Hamburg is the only major German city without an LEZ. However, two streets in Hamburg are off-limits to diesel vehicles without a Euro 6 qualification. LEZ’s entry criteria in many German cities have been tightened over the years moving from red, to yellow to green. Motorways (Autobahnen) are never part of an LEZ even if these run through an LEZ municipality.

German LEZ zones increasingly tightened in Euro engine classifications from Euro 2 (red) to 4 (green)

Except for the city of Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, which allows entry with a yellow sticker, all LEZs in Germany can be entered provided a green sticker (ref image below) with the licence plate number is displayed on the windshield. The green sticker confirms compliance with Euro 4 emission standard or higher. Yellow and red stickers indicate compliance with Euro 3 and 2 standards, which often applies to older diesel vehicles. No sticker is issued for Euro 1 or lower. There is no limit to the validity of the stickers provided the license plate does not change. The sticker merely displays the Euro emission standard of the engine of the vehicle in question. However, vehicles with Euro 5 or Euro 6 compliance all receive a green Euro 4 sticker due to an issue at federal level explained below. Upgrading LEZs in Germany to Euro 5 or 6 thus becomes a huge issue since all cars need new stickers.
Unlawful entry of an LEZ in Germany risks a fine of 80 euros. The appropriate sticker cost 5 euros and is issued with the license plate number after showing the vehicle registration certificate. These days the stickers are also sold (often at a surcharge) at petrol stations, where they will assess the Euro category based on your vehicle registration certificate. However, LEZ enforcement with the sticker system is a complex issue in Germany. 

LEZ stickers with Euro-norm indication in use in Germany.

Exempt are the following vehicles:

  • Motorcycles
  • Scooters
  • Agricultural vehicles and machinery
  • Emergency vehicles
  • Classic cars (certificate required)

Despite the LEZ measures, more than 80 German municipalities still suffer from considerable air pollution. This means that often the green emissions sticker no longer suffices. For a few years, German states and cities have therefore been trying to convince the central government to introduce higher emission stickers than the green Euro 4. This would be a new blue emissions sticker for vehicles that meet emission standard Euro 5 or 6. But the focus is on Euro 6 which is far more strict on NOx emissions. The limit for Euro 6 is 80mg NOx/km, but many Euro 6 diesels exceed this value in live situations. This is also the area of the diesel scandal where 80 mg requirement could be achieved since the software used would detect a emission test cycle and modify the engine settings in order to pass the test. Politically, this issue is quite sensitive since it potentially affects millions of cars and thus the mobility of their owners. Some cities are moving ahead despite the federal stalemate. Cities with persistent air quality problems have set limitations to all diesel vehicles that do not comply to the Euro 6 norm (*18). This means that these diesel vehicles can be fined if they enter with a green Euro 4 sticker. These restrictions mostly regard the city center or certain streets (e.g. Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Darmstadt).

But due to the political stalemate the federal government has not authorised issuing the appropriate blue Euro 5 or 6 stickers. Thus enforcement can only be done by manually randomly checking the vehicle registration papers (Hamburg *19). This is a cumbersome task for which the police do not have sufficient resources. The police in Berlin and the police labour union (GdP) want to use ANPR cameras for LEZ enforcement, but this is highly controversial in Germany due to its strict data protection and privacy regulations, as explained above for the planned LEZ in Maastricht. 

German cities waiting for federal action: the unavailable blue stickers for for Euro 5 and 6 LEZs.

5. Belgium

In Belgium the LEZ concept has been used in Antwerp since 2017 after the Flemish region of the federal state of Belgium prepared a concept law for LEZs in Flanders in 2015. Brussels has an LEZ since 1 January 2018 and Gent operates an LEZ from 1 January 2020. Mechelen and the neighbouring municipality Willebroek shelved plans to operate an LEZ from early 2021, due to a lack of clear policies at federal level, but will start with an ‘air quality zone’ (*20). All LEZs in Belgium apply to diesel engined vehicles only. Fines in Flanders for LEZ violations are 150 euro for the first offence, 250 euro for second offence and 350 for the third offence within one year. Antwerp tightened its LEZ in 2020 currently with free access only for Euro 5 and 6 diesels and Euro 2 and higher for petrol/LPG/CNG. Access for all non-compliant cars can be bought with a day-pass which costs 35 euros and can be issued for a maximum of 8 days per year. Some vehicles, mostly those ranked one Euro-norm category lower and old timers, may still enter the LEZ after payment, without having the required euro emission standard. The drivers of these vehicles have the time to find an alternative thanks to this transitional measure. You can apply for a permit for  one week, one month, four months or a year (*21).

In the Brussels Capital Region with 19 municipalities, which has a different administration from the Flemish region, the LEZ regime is quickly tightened. The ring road (R0), some ring access roads and transit parking areas are exempt from LEZ regulations. Since 1 January 2018 diesel vehicles built before 1997 (Euronorm 1 or without Euronorm) were no longer allowed in the capital region. After a transition period fines of 350 euros kicked in from 1 October 2018. From 1 January 2019 Euro 2 diesel engined vehicles were prohibited and from 1 January 2020 entry of Euro 3 diesels was no longer allowed. From 2022 this will also apply to Euro 4 diesels and in 2025 for Euro 5 (*22). Additionally, Petrol/LPG/CNG engined cars with Euro 0 and 1 are not allowed in the Brussels LEZ. From 2024 this also applies to Euro 2 petrol/LPG/CNG cars. Brussels always reserves the right to tighten the LEZ or reduce the speed limit on an ad hoc basis should there be worsening pollution conditions. This is communicated via various media channels. Brussels already has one of the largest 30 km/h zones in Europe which not only cuts pollution but also benefits road safety and quality of life. Many other cities in Europe have complete or partial 30 km/h policies e.g. in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, etc.

An initial analysis of the Brussels LEZ shows that proper enforcement and penalties are key. LEZ violations went down by roughly 70% when the city started to issue fines (*23). Depending on the city and country, enforcement of foreign vehicles is also important for LEZ effectiveness and but especially for public acceptance. Enforcement in Brussels is done by ANPR cameras. Belgian and Dutch vehicles are checked automatically based on the engine criteria stored in the vehicle register of both counties. All vehicles from other countries that want to enter the Brussels LEZ will have to register online (https://lez.brussels/mytax/en/registration). Vehicle registration is free and valid for three years, provided that the vehicle information does not change. Like Antwerp, a day-pass can be purchased for non-compliant vehicles. LEZ entry thus can be bought for € 35. This is therefore actually a tax on entering Brussels with a polluting vehicle. The day-pass can even be bought the day after LEZ entry. A maximum of 8 day-passes per year can be used in the Brussels LEZ for each registered vehicle i.e. license plate. The LEZ does not apply to motorcycles, mopeds and scooters. Campers, old-timers (> 30 years) and vehicles for the handicapped can apply for an exemption.  Failure to comply with the Brussels LEZ access criteria is subject to a fine of € 350. Each further offence will cost the same amount. However, a fine may only be imposed for a new infraction if it takes place at least 3 months after the previous. Over a year, a maximum of 4 fines per vehicle can therefore be imposed. A fine for failure to register with a vehicle complying to the access criteria is € 150. Enforcement in the Brussels LEZis carried out based on the vehicle licence plate using fixed and mobile cameras. A network of 191 cameras has been set up gradually throughout the region and at the regional boundaries. They are used both for LEZ purposes and by the police as part of the video-protection platform of the Brussels prevention and security project.

Conditions for the LEZ of Antwerp and Ghent, both in the Flanders region, are comparable to Brussels, however, vehicles with an exempt status need to register twice, both in Flanders and in Brussels. The Walloon region of Belgium currently has no LEZ in place.

The Brussels LEZ.

6. France

The first LEZ in France became effective in Paris on 1 September 2015. Initially, access was prohibited to diesel buses and trucks registered before 1 October 2001. National legislation was finalised on 1 July 2016 which also introduced the sticker system explained below. Based on the new legislation additional LEZs have been created in Greater Paris, Lyon, Grenoble and Strasbourg. 

In France, cities, municipalities, departments and regions have not been compliant with the European Commission’s obligations and requirements on the Air Quality Directive since 2010. Despite several warnings from the EU, the limit values for nitrogen dioxide have still not been met by 2019. For this reason, France was ordered by the ECJ on 24 October 2019 to quickly improve the air quality and thus not only to tighten the rules of existing environmental zones but also to introduce new environmental zones (*24).

LEZs of various types have been established in France. A distinction is made between permanent and temporary zones. The traffic restrictions are then permanent or activated only temporarily e.g. during smog conditions. The zones where permanent traffic restrictions exist were called ZCR Zones (Restricted Traffic Zones) until 2019. In these areas, the rules will be tightened in the coming years, thus further restricting traffic. From this year, 2020, the ZCR zones will be called ZFE (Zone à Faibles Émissions) more in line with the translation of the English acronym LEZ. Additionally, more LEZs will have their area extended, thus further restricting traffic. 

The zones in which temporary traffic restrictions can be activated have been called ZPA (Zones de Protection de l’Air) since 2017. Depending on weather conditions, e.g. in the event of a pollution peak – when emission measurements exceed the authorized limit – traffic restrictions are activated. ZPA rules will also be strengthened, further limiting traffic. ZPAs can cover wide areas and when they involve an entire department instead of just a city or metropolis, the acronym ZPAd is used. Apart from this there are also emergency schemes during times of high pollution. The French law says that they may be possible in any city. 

Map of France with various permanent and temporary LEZs:

In October 2018, nine more French cities experiencing serious air quality issues planned to establish low emission zones (ZFE type) by the end of 2020. These cities and metropolitan areas are: Rouen, Grand Reims, Saint-Étienne, Clermont Auvergne, Montpellier, Toulouse, Nice, Toulon and Aix-Marseille (*25). 

Like Germany, France operates a sticker system with printed vehicle registration for vehicle entry into LEZs. However, unlike Germany the sticker numbers do not match the Euronorm engine classification system and the number order is reversed. The purple sticker 1 regards the cleanest vehicles, the grey sticker 5 the most polluting. Some vehicles are too old and/or too polluting to even qualify for sticker 5. In the image the green sticker without a number is for zero-emission vehicles. Stickers only cost € 3,62 including postage within France. Postage of these stickers is also available for other EU countries (*26).

French national qualification scheme for LEZ stickers.
In France motorcycles, mopeds and scooters also require an LEZ sticker.

Paris actually has two LEZs, one for Greater Paris (roughly within the circular A86 motorway) and one for  Paris intramuros i.e. within the Boulevard Périphérique ring road. 

In general the Paris city LEZ is still one ‘sticker-notch’ (ref. graph above) stricter than the Greater Paris LEZ, and is also combined with other measures that regulate entry of internal combustion vehicles and seek to promote quality of life for citizens and visitors of Paris.

Thus, under the name ‘Breathing Paris’ every first Sunday of the month, from 10:00 to 18:00, travel on foot, by bicycle, (electric) scooter, roller skates, etc. is facilitated and anyone is able to better enjoy the centre of Paris. Only residents, delivery vehicles, public transport, taxis and hybrid bikes are allowed to enter through the filtering access points (exit points are unfiltered).

6.1 The Greater Paris LEZ

There is a wide range of vehicles that have exemptions for the LEZ such as vehicles for handicapped people, armed forces and emergency vehicles, driving schools and removal companies. Further details at https://urbanaccessregulations.eu/countries-mainmenu-147/france/paris

The Paris LEZ aims to gradually eliminate the most polluting vehicles based on the Crit’Air sticker qualification and focus on:

  • Accelerating the renewal of the vehicle fleet,
  • Reducing emissions of air pollutants linked to road traffic (NOx, PM10, PM2.5 and volatile organic compounds),
  • Reducing the concentrations of air pollutants,
  • Reducing the number of people exposed to concentrations higher than the regulatory values ​​or the recommendations of the World Health Organization
  • Participating in the development of new mobility

The measures are expected to also cause a slight drop in CO2 emissions. In addition, impact studies carried out as part of the Ile-de-France Atmosphere Protection Plan 2018-2025 show that this measure is among the most effective in reducing emissions from road traffic.

6.2 The Paris LEZ


Zones piètonnes permanentes = Permanent pedestrian zone

Zones Paris Respire = ‘Breathing Paris’ zone

Zone estivales = Summer zone

Zones Paris Respire mensuelles = Monthly ‘Breathing Paris’ zone (effective each first Sunday of the month)

From January 2021, the same LEZ rules will apply both in Paris and in the Grand Paris environmental zone inside the A86 motorway. If this harmonization is effective in the two zones, provisions should be made for checks to be carried out automatically via a camera system in and around the Paris conurbation. Further strengthening of LEZ access rules to Paris will continue in the coming years. Eco-sticker 3 vehicles will be banned in July 2022 and eco-sticker 2 vehicles in January 2024.

Any violation of the LEZ requirements, namely failure to display an appropriate sticker or other traffic access restrictions, may result in €68 fine for cars and a fine of up to €135 for buses and trucks. Fines are issued by the police (*27). The police could use three methods for LEZ enforcement: 

  1. Direct on-site (with and without addressing of the driver),
  2. Video enforcement through CCTV cameras with live remote monitoring 
  3. Fully automated camera enforcement.

The simplest solution LEZ violations remains direct on-site enforcement. This does not raise any technical or legal difficulties. However, it mobilizes significant human resources, which can be disproportionate to the issue, especially when the EPZ is extended. Additionally, there are many other priorities.

Video enforcement is also possible, from a legal and technical point of view. However, it is relatively inefficient from an operational point of view. The official must first use the video surveillance camera control system to verify the absence of an LEZ sticker and read the number of the license plate of the suspect vehicle. Then it must be verified that the vehicle is not white listed and finally a violation notice must be issued and sent.

Currently, automated enforcement is not an option for low-emission areas. Violations of the traffic rules of LEZs are not cited in the Highway Code as those which can be subject to automated control. In addition, there are presently no specifications or a certification body for an LEZ automated control system (*28).

7. Conclusions

The diesel scandal and the unreliable emission tests and data from car manufacturers have accelerated the role of national and municipal governments to combat vehicle emissions and protect the health and quality of life of their citizens. Since other sources besides road transport can also cause considerable pollution, the potential impact of an LEZ is related to the share of pollution generated by traffic in an urban area. The higher this share the higher the potential benefit. Research shows that LEZ policies can contribute to reducing traffic generated emissions of fine particles (mostly soot) and to a lesser degree NOx. Depending on the policy this is mainly caused by lower use and lower numbers of polluting vehicles in the targeted urban area and by affecting the vehicle purchasing behaviour. The availability of alternative transport modes such as public transport, car sharing, cycling, walking, taxis and micro-mobility options and the success of policies to direct citizens to use them instead of cars is obviously also of key importance. However, Stockholm shows that congestion charging is more effective than LEZ policies in reducing overall vehicle emissions since it targets all vehicles, also those with advanced engine Euro 6 types and even zero-emission vehicles.

The authorities assist the owners of non-LEZ compliant vehicles, living in the affected city areas, in several ways. There are advance notifications of the LEZ policy, scrapping or retrofitting subsidies and exemptions or a certain grace time for the affected owners or special interest groups.

LEZs are well supported by most of the affected citizens. But still, it is extremely important to plan a well designed PR campaign and to involve stakeholders and potential negatively affected citizens early on. PR should start well in advance (one year plus) of any introduction of an LEZ especially if there is no grace period for the vehicle owners in the affected city and neighborhoods. Timeframes about the start and future tightening of the LEZ should be clearly communicated. There are also politics involved since lower income households and many SMEs are disproportionately affected by an LEZ. They mostly buy older second hand vehicles that are subject to LEZ bans. 

Besides an early and effective PR campaign, local, but also national politics plays an important role in the success of an LEZ. A national regulatory LEZ framework is required for clarity, transparency and enforceability.  The more exemptions and delay in Euro 6 compliance is allowed the lower the effect of a local LEZ and its national framework (e.g. Euro 6 sticker introduction in Germany). This also applies to the LEZ restriction on regular car and LCV use, including those running on petrol, and as mentioned, the promotion, access and ease of use of alternatives to cars. Enforced lower speeds e.g. in wider 30 km/h zones also help considerably. Many European cities have used this concept.

Amsterdam, Brussels, Maastricht show that enforcement is a key issue. Amsterdam has effectively banned polluting two-stroke mopeds and scooters with a dedicated LEZ ANPR based camera system. The Brussels LEZ became effective only after owners were getting fined. Maastricht postponed their LEZ for regular diesel cars since the German privacy regulations cannot allow license plate checks in their vehicle register without proof of violation. Brussels has cleverly resolved this by making it obligatory for non-Belgian and non-Dutch vehicles to register their vehicles on-line when planning to enter the LEZ. The London LEZ works in a similar way for foreign vehicles. The strict data protection regulations in Germany prevent an effective Pan-EU system for checking LEZ vehicle compliance and enforcement. Thus window LEZ stickers are likely to stay.

At the moment many European cities do not comply with EU air quality standards, if this continues to be the case with Euro 6 LEZs and wide area 30 km/h zones in place, congestion charging may be the best solution. This gives municipal governments more options to control traffic flows in time (e.g. expensive morning entry), location (e.g. depending on street or neighbourhood), over engine type and atmospheric conditions by using different and flexible pricing models and entry conditions. Congestion charging also gives cities more tools to act based on a wider quality of life dashboard than air quality alone. Governments taking the lead in quality of life and health matters will be even more relevant and urgent in a post-corona world.


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  22. https://www.lez.brussels/mytax/en/
  23. https://environnement.brussels/news/decouvrez-le-premier-bilan-encourageant-de-la-zone-de-basses-emissions
  24. https://www.lez-france.fr/nc/en/french-environmental-zones-zcr/paris-zone-zcr.html
  25. https://urbanaccessregulations.eu/news-and-press/707-more-low-emission-zones-in-france
  26. https://www.certificat-air.gouv.fr/fr/demande-ext/cgu
  27. https://www.paris.fr/pages/nouvelle-etape-crit-air-des-le-1er-juillet-2017-4834
  28. https://www.cerema.fr/fr/actualites/zones-faible-emission-solutions-controle-automatise#:~:text=LES%20MOYENS%20DU%20CONTR%C3%94LE&text=Stationner%20dans%20une%20zone%20%C3%A0,heures%20de%20pointe%20par%20exemple).

Philip Wijers

Published: 2020-07-01

Filed under: air quality, diesel scandal, LEZ, Low Emission Zone, sticker or "ANPR enforcement", Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans”, urban pollution