Low Emission Zones in Europe and the Czech Republic: A Comprehensive Overview

Publikováno: 11. září. 2023, 22 min. čtení
Publikováno: 11. září. 2023, 22 min. čtení

Low emission zones have been booming in Europe in recent years, with over 300 cities currently implementing them. How do they contribute to improving the environment and achieving climate goals? What challenges does the recently approved EU framework for urban mobility highlight? What are the conditions in the Czech Republic, where no low emission zones are currently in place? Can Czech cities combine low emission zones with congestion charging to create regulations similar to those in London or Milan?

This is an article by the AutoMat Association.

The text was created as part of the Central European Active Mobility Lab (CEAML) project supported by the European Climate Foundation. The original text was published on June 6, 2023, on the AutoMat Association website.

Air pollution caused by particulate matter

The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that in 2018 long-term exposure to particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM 2.5) was responsible for approximately 417,000 premature deaths in Europe, of which approximately 379,000 were recorded in European Union countries. EU threshold values significantly exceed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines for most pollutants, and there is no daily limit set for PM 2.5 in the EU. Existing or planned EURO emission standards, including the widely discussed EURO 7 standard aimed at reducing limits for PM 10 particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, do not apply to PM 2.5 emissions.

It is estimated that the impact of polluted air on the European population’s health results in economic damage ranging from 427 to 790 billion Euros annually, which is roughly five times the budget of the Czech Republic. According to health experts‘ estimates, the cost of polluted air for an average resident of a European city is 1,276 Euros per year, with disproportionately higher impacts on poorer regions and populations.

A new EU framework for urban mobility

On May 9, 2023, the European Parliament approved a new EU framework for urban mobility, bringing forth new solutions for a greener, digitalized, and multimodal future of transportation in cities. Regarding air pollution caused by particulate matter, the European Parliament acknowledges it as a threat to public health that requires immediate action, similar to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The framework in the area of regulating polluting vehicles recognizes the added value of sharing best practices among cities and at the European level. However, it also emphasizes that urban areas must remain accessible to all and that no group of citizens should be penalized to the extent that their transportation becomes inefficient or mobility becomes impossible. The framework further highlights that regulations regarding vehicle access to urban areas should be accompanied by impact assessments, as well as consultations with the public and other stakeholders. Regulatory measures need to be implemented in a way that helps balance the benefits of these zones in terms of improving air quality and reducing traffic congestion, while addressing their shortcomings in terms of discrimination, additional costs to urban logistics, or potential impact on local tourism.

The introduction of a stricter low emission zone in London in 2019 (ULEZ, Euro 6/VI diesel, Euro 4 petrol) led to a reduction in traffic volumes in specific areas by 3 to 9%. Concentrations of pollutants in the air decreased by 26%. The low emission zone in Ghent, Belgium, along with the implementation of restricted access zones and other measures, helped reduce the degree of motorization (number of vehicles per resident) by ten percent in two years.

Examples of Low Emission Zone settings


In Milan, a combination of a low emission zone and congestion charging has been implemented in the so-called Zone C (historic center) since 2013. Currently, electric and hybrid vehicles have unrestricted access to the city center, while less polluting vehicles pay a fee, currently set at 5 € per day. Residents receive a discount (2 €) and a certain number of free entries per year.

Access to Zone C is completely restricted for petrol-powered vehicles that do not meet Euro 3 emissions standards and diesel vehicles that do not meet Euro 6 standards. The regulations for delivery vehicles are slightly more lenient. There is a gradual tightening of the regulations expected until 2030. Similar access restrictions apply to the broader city center (Zone B), where entry is prohibited for trucks longer than 12 meters. Trucks providing essential services can obtain temporary permits. The restrictions apply only on weekdays.


Paris currently has a low emission zone implemented within the inner ring road, effectively covering the entire city center. The zone applies to cars and vans on weekdays during the day (8 am to 8 pm) and to trucks even on weekends. The current requirement sets Euro 4 standards for diesel vehicles and Euro 2 standards for gasoline vehicles. However, the requirement is expected to be tightened: from January 2024, all personal diesel vehicles and vans will be banned from entering inner Paris, and trucks must meet Euro 6 standards. Euro 5 will be required for gasoline vehicles. Additionally, a restricted access zone is planned for the inner city center. From 2030, a complete ban on fossil fuel vehicles is expected, with exceptions for weekends and nighttime hours.

In addition to the current low emission zone, there are several zones with restricted access (Paris Respire) within the inner city, and on „car-free Sundays,“ there is a ban on vehicle entry into the entire inner Paris. For outer Paris and surrounding municipalities that are part of the metropolitan area, there is currently a low emission zone with more lenient regulations.


London currently combines low emission zones with congestion charging in three zones: In the central zone, there is a congestion charge on weekdays between 7 am and 6 pm, currently set at £15, or a discounted annual subscription for £10 per day. Greater London has a low emission zone for commercial vehicles, allowing entry for a relatively high fee (£100). Inner London has the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which charges vehicles that do not meet Euro 4 (gasoline) or Euro 6 (diesel) standards with a fee of £12.50. From August 29, 2023, the ULEZ will be expanded to cover the entire London area. The regulations also apply to motorcycles.

Low emission zones in the EU and the recent increase

According to an analysis of low emission zones in the EU conducted by Stadler Consultants, the number of cities implementing low emission zones increased from 228 to 320 between 2019 and 2022. It is also anticipated that by 2025, the number of cities implementing low emission zones will reach 500. Furthermore, at least 27 existing zones are expected to tighten their regulations by 2025, including major cities such as London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin.

There are several reasons for this significant increase in the number of cities with low emission zones. One reason is the new understanding of the health impacts of air pollution, leading to updates in air quality guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO). Additionally, measures based on the 2008 European Commission regulation on air quality are being implemented in recent years. In some cases, the introduction of low emission zones was a result of legal action taken by the public against the inactivity of public authorities regarding air quality.

As a response to these stimuli, some European countries have introduced new legislation to support or even mandate the establishment of low emission zones in cities.

In France, the Climate and Resilience Law, which came into effect in 2021, mandates the establishment of low emission zones in cities with a population of over 150,000. This regulation applies to approximately 42 cities. Where air quality standards are violated, the entry of vehicles that do not meet Euro 4 and Euro 5A standards for diesel engines will be prohibited by 2025.

In Spain, the Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition, which came into effect in 2021, mandates the establishment of low emission zones in cities with a population of over 50,000. The obligation will affect diesel vehicles that do not meet Euro 3 standards, with cities having the option to gradually tighten the requirements up to Euro 6.

In Poland, the law on alternative fuels grants the competence to establish low emission zones to cities such as Warsaw or Krakow. Krakow previously attempted to establish a low emission zone in 2019 but was unsuccessful. The new legislation is expected to enable them to do so in the near future. Cities such as Lodz, Wroclaw, Zabrze, Gliwice, Rzeszow, Bydgoszcz, and Gdansk have also expressed interest in establishing low emission zones.

It should be noted, however, that most cities affected by the new legislation are still in the process of developing precise plans for establishing low emission zones. Therefore, it is uncertain whether low emission zones will actually be implemented in some of these cities in the near future.

Zero emission zones

So-called zero emission zones (ZEZ) are established with the aim of improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions from transportation. The effectiveness of this measure depends on the proportion of renewable energy in the electricity supply, and it has a greater impact when applied to heavily used vehicles such as delivery vans and public transport vehicles. An alternative measure could be to limit access in pedestrian zones to only zero-emission vehicles.

According to the Clean Cities study in 2022, at least 35 European cities are considering the establishment of zero emission zones by 2030. While the majority of these zones will target commercial vehicles, at least nine cities (Amsterdam, Helmond, Eindhoven, Bergen, inner London, Paris, Oxford, Copenhagen, and Oslo) are considering extending the zero emission zone to all vehicles.

The Dutch government has signed agreements with major cities and transportation companies to introduce zero-emission logistics in at least 25 large cities by 2025. As mentioned earlier, Paris plans to restrict the entry of combustion engine vehicles from 2030. Copenhagen aims to establish pilot zones for zero-emission vehicles with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, while Amsterdam plans to establish a zero emission zone by 2030. Brussels intends to restrict the entry of diesel and hybrid vans (categories M1 and N1) by 2030 and extend this restriction to passenger vehicles by 2035. Stockholm plans to introduce the first phase of a zero-emission zone in 2025.

Limits to establishing low emission zones

However, establishing low emission zones is not always easy or fully successful. The implementation of a low emission zone in Barcelona was delayed due to a court ruling that initially rejected the establishment of the zone as excessive. Many cities that committed to establishing low emission zones have delayed implementation due to a lack of political will, as is the case with Prague, which has included the establishment of a low emission zone in emission reduction programs since 2010 (see below for further details).

German and Italian low emission zones face difficulties in enforcement. Many zones in German cities were declared around ten years ago (with standards approximately Euro 2 for gasoline engines and Euro 4 for diesel engines), and due to ongoing fleet renewal, they have become less effective. Local authorities will have to decide whether to tighten regulations leading to zero emission zones, consider alternative measures to reduce traffic congestion (such as a circulation system or congestion charging), or, in justified cases, completely abolish the low emission zone.

Low emission zones in the Czech Republic

Czech legislation allows for the establishment of low emission zones through Act No. 201/2012 Coll., which largely mirrors the former German system. In 2016, the legislation was slightly amended. The Ministry for the Environment issued guidelines for the establishment of these zones, which should primarily be implemented in municipalities mandated to do so by the relevant Air Quality Improvement Program. Entry into the zone may be allowed for vehicles marked with an emissions sticker. The municipality can also permit entry for residents and grant individual exemptions based on reasons specified in the law.

However, to date, no low emission zone has been established in the Czech Republic. Cities that have considered implementing such zones cite reasons such as a lack of political consensus, strict requirements set by the Air Quality Act (including bypass routes), or the anticipated low impact of such measures on local air quality.

A significant condition for establishing low emission zones in the Czech Republic is that a zone can only be designated on a through road if there is a comparable alternative route (bypass) on a road of the same or higher category. In Prague, for example, this condition is interpreted to mean that a low emission zone cannot be established without completing the inner and potentially outer ring road. However, this condition does not take into account that establishing low emission zones could lead to a reduction in destination traffic, thereby allowing the creation of low emission zones in agglomerations even without capacity on bypass routes. The condition, or rather its commonly understood interpretation, can be considered unduly restrictive for the establishment of low emission zones. Low emission zones are most effective when they contribute to reducing traffic congestion in cities, but the domestic legislation does not recognize this as a reason for their establishment.

Czech legislation also does not provide a clear option for charging entry fees for vehicles in inner cities based on emissions, which has proven to be the most effective tool. The Act on Local Fees allows for charging entry fees in selected areas and parts of cities, but only in a way that does not apply to residents or local businesses and up to a maximum of CZK 200 per day. The interpretation by the Ministry of the Interior explicitly states that the charged amount cannot be differentiated for individuals and legal entities. However, municipalities can grant exemptions from the fee, which theoretically allows for using the act to differentiate the fee based on emission class or vehicle weight.

Compared to the laws in some other EU countries, which directly mandate the establishment of low emission zones in larger cities, our legislation seems to be somewhat insufficiently designed, but not to the extent that it completely prevents the introduction of low emission zones, even in combination with some form of entry fees. The absence of implementations in the Czech Republic is rather striking and points to a lack of political will or a value system that prioritizes unrestricted car traffic over public health.


Prague is one of several Czech cities that have considered establishing low emission zones in the past. The establishment of a low emission zone was mandated by the Regional Program for Improving Air Quality Emissions from 2010 (Measure 4.3), 2016 (Measure 4.3), and is also requested by the program from 2020 (as part of supportive measures, more information here).

The obligation to establish a low emission zone (with regulations for vehicles not meeting Euro 3 and 4 standards) also arises from the city’s commitments to meet the conditions of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the completion of the City Ring Road. However, the current development in vehicle emission regulations suggests that these requirements will be completely outdated by the time the City Ring Road is completed (around 2030), and it would be desirable to update them to a level comparable to the current regulations in Western European cities.


Based on the reasons for establishing low emission zones, and the goals of the European Union regarding harmful emissions and CO2 from road transport, as confirmed by the approved European framework for urban mobility, it follows that low emission zones are essentially only an intermediate step towards clean air and the minimization of the climate impact of urban transport. Low emission zones, as currently designed, will not be able to meet the EU’s climate goals—they were not intended for that purpose. It is clear that for cities aiming for climate neutrality in transportation, the future establishment of zero emission zones will be essential.

At the same time, the recently approved EU framework for urban mobility highlights factors that need to be considered when introducing zero-emission transport, particularly in terms of equal access to mobility. In the transition to climate-neutral and low-pollution urban transport, low emission and zero emission zones will serve as local or accompanying measures within the context of alternative public and active mobility.

The domestic situation is significantly influenced by a detached approach to ensuring comprehensive public transport service, lower purchasing power of the population, an aging vehicle fleet, and a growing „transport poverty“ manifested in the absence of alternatives to forced car use. Nevertheless, the absence of domestic implementations of low emission zones is surprising.

In addition to a lack of political will, the non-establishment of low emission zones in the Czech Republic, after ten years of existing legislation, is likely also an acknowledgment that although the current legislative framework theoretically offers the possibility of introducing low emission zones and even combining them with some form of graduated entry fees based on vehicle emissions, municipalities do not perceive the current legal framework as supportive of their establishment. It is therefore advisable to consider amending the legislation to take into account not only the requirements for improving air quality but also the legitimate desire to reduce the burden of car traffic on cities and achieve climate goals, and to integrate both existing tools (low emission zones and local fees) in a way that allows municipalities to establish emission-sensitive entry fees without concerns about convoluted legal constructs.

This is an adjusted ChatGPT translation of this article: https://mestemnakole.cz/2023/07/nizkoemisni-zony-v-evrope-a-v-cr-uceleny-prehled/

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