Britain to Ban New Diesel and Gas Cars by 2040

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LONDON — Scrambling to combat a growing air pollution crisis, Britain announced on Wednesday that sales of new diesel and gas cars would reach the end of the road by 2040, the latest step in Europe’s battle against the damaging environmental impact of the internal combustion engine.

Britain’s plans match a similar pledge made this month by France, and are part of a growing global push to curb emissions and fight climate change by promoting electric cars. Carmakers are also adjusting, with Volvo notably saying recently that it would phase out the internal combustion engine in coming years and BMW deciding to build an electric version of its popular Mini car in Britain.

But the shift to electric vehicles will be a gradual one, and the target set by Britain is less ambitious than efforts elsewhere. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord has also dented optimism.

Britain’s new clean air strategy, published on Wednesday, calls for sales of new gas and diesel cars and vans to end by 2040. The government will also make more than 200 million pounds, or $260 million, available for local governments to take short-term action, such as retrofitting buses, to reduce air pollution.

“It is important that we all gear up for a significant change which deals not just with the problems to health caused by emissions but the broader problems caused in terms of accelerating climate change,” Michael Gove, the country’s environment secretary, said in an interview with the BBC.

“We can’t carry on with diesel and petrol cars, not just because of the health problems that they cause, but also because the emissions that they cause would mean that we would accelerate climate change.”

Mr. Gove called on local councils to use the funds to “accelerate” their efforts to improve air quality and “come up with an imaginative solution” to the problem.

The strategy document was published after a protracted legal battle in which ministers were ordered by the courts to produce new plans to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

In France, the promise to end sales of traditional cars was made as part of a renewed commitment to the Paris climate change accord.

In Britain, which is also committed to the Paris treaty, the measures have particular political significance because of rising concern over the level of air pollution, particularly in large cities like London. Poor air quality, much of it a result of pollution from vehicles, is estimated to cause more than 23,000 deaths a year in Britain.

Frederik Dahlmann, assistant professor of global energy at Warwick Business School, described Mr. Gove’s announcement as “an important step” that set a clear long-term target, and “also gives car buyers an incentive to consider the different types of engine options available in light of the long-term development of the market.”

Still, he said, the long-term nature of the announcement left a significant question hanging: “How does the government intend to improve air quality and reduce transport related emissions in the short term?”

Experts also argue that Britain faces a huge challenge in creating the infrastructure required to make a switch to electric cars.

And some critics say the country’s efforts are not aggressive enough — France has also set 2040 as its target, but Norway intends to sell only electric cars from 2025, and India wants to do so by 2030.

Cars typically have a life span of around 15 years, so even if Britain follows through with its target, conventional engines are likely to be on the country’s roads more than a decade later.

In the meantime, industry groups warned against introducing bans on gas and diesel vehicles in specific parts of Britain.

“Outright bans risk undermining the current market for new cars and our sector, which supports over 800,000 jobs across the U.K.,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, an industry body.

Mr. Hawes said that while demand for vehicles that used new types of fuel was growing, it was still at a low level. He called for the authorities to provide incentives for consumers to purchase cars that have lower emissions.