Replace My Car: With the EU planning to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, creating low-emission zones started to gain popularity, implying that thousands of personal cars will have to be replaced for some citizens to gain access to low-emission zones in some European cities. Considering the social implications of exchanging cars for the more socially…

Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN)

by Victor Musti (FR)


The EU’s ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 necessitates the strategic implementation of impactful measures. Addressing this objective becomes even more imperative considering the alarming toll of air pollution, shown in Figure 1, which led to nearly 400,000 premature deaths within the EU in 2023 alone. To combat this issue, the establishment of low-emission zones in several European cities has emerged as a potential solution. In 2022, approximately 320 low-emission zones have been implemented across EU countries, covering areas inhabited by more than 65 million citizens. The number of these zones is expected to reach 500 by 2025, as seen in Figure 2.In 2023, an estimated 58% of individuals from low-income households were reliant on personal cars. This dependency significantly amplifies the potential consequences of transitioning to low-emission zones for the mobility and access of disadvantaged groups, as the shift to these zones often entails the replacement of personal vehicles. The problem directly affects around 35 million citizens from economically challenged backgrounds, who may face transport exclusion from these zones due to financial constraints. Estimates indicate a budget requirement of €1.5 billion to facilitate the replacement of vehicles in these communities. The challenge revolves around balancing environmental objectives with social equity, urging the formulation of comprehensive strategies and initiatives to bridge the gap and ensure equitable access to low-emission zones.

Figure 1: Air quality in Europe in 2019.
Figure 2: Number of low-emission zones (LEZs) in Europe in 2022 and 2025.


  • Low-emission zone (LEZ)  is a defined zone that restricts the use of polluting vehicles through priced or non-priced strategies, such as fines or impact on the driver’s license.
  • Transport exclusion is a term representing unequal access to transportation that can result in the social exclusion of disadvantaged groups via the inability to access certain locations in or outside of their city of residence; resulting in, for example, reduced career opportunities.
  • Carbon neutrality is a term coined for an achieved balance between emitted and absorbed carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks1, which is heavily mentioned in the context of the mitigation of climate change.
  • Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of ethnicity, income, or socioeconomic status, concerning the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
  • Low-income households is a term that refers to families earning less than a certain level of income, known as the at-risk-of-poverty threshold. In the EU, this threshold is set at 60% of the average income in each country, adjusted for the size of the household.

Relevant Stakeholders

The European Commission, as the executive branch of the European Union, plays a pivotal role in drafting legislation, setting emission standards, and coordinating policies across Member States. They provide funding, guidance, and directives to promote low-emission initiatives within the EU. Their policies significantly influence the establishment and implementation of low-emission zones in various European cities.

However, other public institutions are also directly affected, such as local municipalities, as they have the immediate responsibility of implementing and managing low-emission zones within their cities. Municipalities face the challenge of balancing environmental objectives with citizens’ transportation needs. Their decisions impact citizens’ mobility and access to these zones, thus directly affecting their quality of life and the city’s air quality.Population-wise, citizens from low-income households are probably the first affected by the low-emission zones policies. This is the case because they heavily rely on personal cars for mobility and often struggle to afford the transition to low-emission vehicles or comply with zone restrictions. Their mobility options could be limited, leading to potential

exclusion from areas essential for work, services, or leisure activities, impacting their socio-economic participation. 

But many of these regulations come from the involvement of environmental NGOs, who are deeply involved in advocating for making them stricter, through awareness campaigns and promoting sustainable transport solutions. Their work influences public opinion, policies, and urban planning decisions, aiming to mitigate environmental degradation and improve public health.

Finally, on a corporate level, automobile manufacturers and transport companies face the pressure to comply with emission regulations with the increasing regulations on their sector of work, which has an impact on their service, production, expenses and revenue.

Key Conflicts

Balancing Social Equity and Environmental Protection: One of the primary conflicts arises from the tension between the environmental benefits of low-emission zones and their impact on social equity. While these zones aim to reduce pollution levels, the shift from personal vehicles can disproportionately affect low-income households, as they might struggle more to financially support the replacement of their personal vehicle, preventing them from accessing these spaces. Striking a balance between environmental conservation and ensuring access to low-emission zones for all socioeconomic groups is a significant challenge.

Funding and Infrastructure: Financial resources and infrastructure development pose significant challenges. Ensuring adequate funding for the creation and maintenance of low-emission zones, along with building necessary infrastructure like charging stations for electric vehicles or public transportation, remains a contentious issue. The difficulty of creating such an infrastructure lowers the number of alternatives that socially disadvantaged citizens could have other than cars, increasing their social exclusion once again.

Local Adaptation: Establishing standardised policies across the EU for low-emission zones and allowing flexibility for local adaptation is also a point worth paying attention to. Different cities and regions might have unique requirements and challenges, making implementing a one-size-fits-all policy challenging. Moreover, this also makes it more difficult for the local communities to be heard in the decision-making process even though the policies in place directly impact them.

Public Acceptance: There can be resistance or lack of public acceptance towards low-emission zones due to inconvenience, perceived limitations on personal choice, or insufficient infrastructure for alternative transportation modes, leading to dissatisfaction among the general public. It is in the local municipalities’ interest to make these requirements accepted and create awareness about the urgency of the environmental status quo and the benefits of the zones among the citizens.

Zones to target: Apart from very populated cities, the most polluted places are industrial areas, meaning that low-emission zones would be especially relevant when implemented there. However, most of these places are not related to any effective transportation network, making personal vehicle use necessary. Moreover, most of the employees in said areas come from low-income households anyway. Targeting these spaces would then mean targeting the most impoverished employees at the same time.

Economic Impact: Prioritising public health and the environment by reducing emissions and its potential economic impact on businesses that heavily rely on traditional transportation modes is also a conflict worth noting. Implementing stringent regulations in low-emission zones could affect industries like logistics and transportation, impacting jobs and economic stability in certain regions. It would also directly affect the workers in the sector, which can reflect on the performance of the companies they work at.

Measures in Place

Clean Vehicle Incentives: Some Member States offer financial incentives for purchasing electric or low-emission vehicles, providing direct grants or discounts at the point of sale, such as the UK’s “Plug-In Car Grant” and Germany’s “Environmental Bonus” (now cut-off) programs, available with some conditions. Such help can give some low-income households the opportunity to shift to greener transportation means.

Exemptions and Discounts: Some cities offer exemptions or reduced charges for low-income individuals entering low-emission zones. This is the case for London or Milan, where “Area C” provides exemptions for some vehicles based on income criteria. This allows the implementation of low-emission zones without low-income households having to change cars. However, it does not help with the environmental problem incurred by this population.

Public Transportation Subsidies: Some Member States’ cities decided to propose varying discounts on public transportation based on income levels, reducing the cost for low-income households. This approach is found in Berlin, Paris and Stockholm with their “Income-Related Traffic Subsidy” program. Such pricing methods allow municipalities to still earn a great amount of revenue with their public transportation while helping the most socioeconomically vulnerable population.

Flexible Payment Schemes: Some cities decided to grant access to low-emission zones with an over-polluting car by paying a monthly or annual fee instead of paying every time the zone is entered. Some cities with this system chose to make the price related to the income, helping citizens with a lower income. This is the case with Rotterdam’s “Environmental Zone”, for example.

Community Mobility Programs: Some Member States cities gave their citizens access to public bikes or electric cars for one-time travel at a very affordable price. This is relevant to Barcelona’s “Bicing” program, offering community-owned bikes or Brussels’ “Cambio Carsharing”, providing access to shared electric cars. Such measures facilitate shared mobility options for lower-income residents.

European Ecological Programs: Generally, the EU has some programs, such as the Urban Vehicle Access Regulations, to help cities comply with the EU air quality standard, to limit congestion and increase safety.

European Accessibility Programs: The EU has also put in place some programs, such as the Connecting Europe Facility, to ensure great accessibility to as many areas as possible via public transport.

Key Questions 

  • How can the EU ensure that the transition to low-emission zones doesn’t disproportionately burden economically vulnerable groups reliant on personal cars?
  • What innovative financial and incentive mechanisms can be implemented to facilitate access to low-emission vehicles for socially disadvantaged communities?
  • What approaches can effectively engage marginalised communities in the decision-making process for designing and implementing low-emission zone policies?
  • How can public administration target effectively which zones become low-emission to achieve a sufficient positive impact on the environment but not a negative impact on the citizens?
  • What can the EU do to make its policies both widely environmentally effective and considerate of local communities’ obligations and specificities?
  1.  Carbon sinks refer to anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases (for example plants, the ocean and soil). ↩︎