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Sweden Sends a Message to Stockholm Drivers: Go Electric or Go Home

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Starting in 2025, it will be much harder to find a tailpipe in a central district of Stockholm.

Sweden’s capital said this week that it would ban conventional diesel-and-gas-powered vehicles from entering a significant part of its downtown, in what is one of Europe’s most ambitious efforts to combat automobile emissions.

The plan, announced on Tuesday by the vice mayor for transport, Lars Strömgren, will allow only vehicles that run on electricity or natural gas in a 20-block zone. The only exceptions are plug-in hybrid vans and vehicles driven by certified physically impaired drivers, police and emergency workers.

“I think it’s a bold plan,” said Anna Moen, 51, an account manager for an insurance company on the northwest corner of the designated area. “We can’t live like this forever,” she said, gazing at the morning traffic.

Other European cities, like London, Paris, Hamburg, Barcelona and Athens, have similarly tried to discourage the use of private emission-producing cars, but Stockholm appears to be the first Western European city to ban those cars outright on such a large scale.

In London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which was recently expanded to reach outer London, for example, cars that do not meet strict emission standards must pay a daily fee of £12.50, or about $15.20. In Stockholm’s new zone, the consequence of driving in the zone with a gas-powered car would be a traffic ticket, which starts at 1,000 Swedish krona, or roughly $91.

Many cities in Europe have low-emission zones, but most of those zones are focused on limiting diesel engines or only the most polluting gas-powered cars. Other cities have focused on creating new pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure.

But the Stockholm city government is taking a more direct approach.

“Petrol and diesel cars are prohibited, period,” Mr. Strömgren said in an interview. “One goal is to push technology and innovation within the transportation sector.” He said that delivery and transport companies will have to upgrade their fleets to be able to operate in the zone.

The zone extends over 45 acres in the center of Stockholm and is bordered by four major thoroughfares. It includes a classic downtown district in the million-person capital, where few people live, but many work and shop.

“We have chosen an area where large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians are exposed to unhealthy air on a daily basis,” Mr. Strömgren said.

Areas of Stockholm have twice the recommended amount of nitrogen oxide pollution levels, according to figures from the W.H.O.

The ban could do much to help lower levels of nitrogen dioxide, which has deleterious effects on human health, said Chris Woodford, who has written a book on the subject.

“Whether it will affect other forms of pollution is another question,” he said.

Jesper Cederholm, 52, a stockbroker with an office on Hamngatan, the southernmost street affected by the ban, said his feelings on the decision were mixed.

“It was quieter and more pleasant during the pandemic when people worked from home,” he said. “The downside is that it’s a short time to implementation, and we still don’t have the charging station infrastructure.”

In preparation for Jan. 1, 2025, when the ban goes into effect, Mr. Cederholm will have to consider selling the hybrid car he drives now. He worries that the electric cars currently on the market still do not have the distance range for him to make the trip to his second home — some five hours away from Stockholm — in one go.

“It’s a very radical plan,” said Mr. Woodford, who has researched the different approaches cities have taken to discourage driving in their centers. “That’s why I think the risk is there of a pushback,” he added.

The city’s announcement contradicts Swedish national politics, where a conservative coalition has dismantled much of the progress made by previous governments on lowering national emissions.

Mathias Fridahl, who studies Swedish climate politics at Linköping University, calls the national government the “mirror opposite” of the city government, especially when it comes to pollution.

The current Swedish government, which came to power last year, has lowered the tax on conventional fuel and also loosened requirements on adding biofuels to regular fuel, in an attempt to appeal to car drivers.

According to its own government estimates, the country that was a pioneer in environmental politics at a national level will emit between 5.1 and 8.4 million additional tons of carbon dioxide in 2030 thanks to measures designed to lower the cost of conventional car fuel.

“Because of these national government policies, it’s going to be very hard for Stockholm to achieve their own objectives,” Mr. Fridahl said.

But there’s one player in Sweden who is moving even faster than Stockholm to stop car emissions. Last month, Volvo, Sweden’s most important carmaker, announced that it would cease building diesel cars by early 2024.

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