What are Low Emission Zones?
Low Emission Zones (LEZs) are areas where the most polluting vehicles are regulated. Usually this means that vehicles with higher emissions cannot enter the area. In some low emission zones the more polluting vehicles have to pay more if they enter the low emission zone.
Low Emission Zones are also known as Environment Zones, Umweltzonen, Milieuzones, Lavutslippssone, Miljozone, Miljözon, ZTL ambiente.
Low Emission Zones are often the most effective measure that towns and cities can take to improve air pollution. Low emission zones reduce emissions of fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and (indirectly) ozone, the three main air pollutants of concern in Europe.
Fine particulates are also known as PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 micrometre in diameter) or PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 5 micrometre in diameter). A micrometre (μm) is a millionth of a metre (A human hair is about 90 µm in diameter). These fine particulates enter our bodies through its defences and cause damage to our hearts and lungs.
Vehicle emissions are classified by the "Euro standards". In some LEZs fitting a diesel particulate filter can allow a vehicle access to a LEZ.
Before you travel into a low emission zone, you first need to find out if your vehicle is affected.
All low emission zones affect heavy duty goods vehicles (usually over 3.5 tonnes Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW)), and most affect buses and coaches. Some LEZs also affect vans, cars and motorcycles, see our Overview of Low Emission Zones.
Next you need to find out the emissions standards of your vehicle. Then check if this emissions standard is allowed into the zone. Our Quick Guide gives you a list of which LEZs affect your vehicle, by vehicle type or country.
Most LEZs operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, except some of the Italian LEZs which are not in operation permanently.
Why Low Emission Zones?
LEZs are implemented in areas where air pollution levels are dangerous to health. LEZs improve the air quality and make it safer to breathe.
Air pollution is responsible for 310 000 premature deaths in Europe each yeari. This is more deaths than caused by road accidentsii. The human health damage from air pollution is estimated to cost the European economy between €427 and €790 billion per yeariii.
Air pollution most affects the very young and the old and those with heart and lung diseases. Heart and lung diseases are both common causes of death in Europe. Air pollution also triggers health problems like asthma attacks and increases hospital admissions and days off sick. Diesel emissions have been classified as carcinogenic (causing cancer) by the World Health Organisation, which means that reducing diesel emissions is especially important for health. You can find out more details on these issues from the World Health Organisation air quality pages.
We can also consider the impact of air pollution on life expectancy [how long people can expect, on average, to live]. The following map left hand map shows an estimate of how many months life expectancy was reduced by man-made fine particles across Europe in 2000. The right hand map shows the months estimated when the many measures for air pollution have been implemented, in 2020iv. This shows the improvement that can be achieved with different air quality measures, for example cleaner Euro standards and Low Emission Zones.
The third map below shows the estimated years of life lost (YOLL) in 2005 attributable to long-term PM2.5 exposurev. This shows slightly different things, but gives a guide to the improvements from the year 2000 above.
Because of this danger to health, many countries around the world, as well as the European Union (EU), have set air quality standards. These usually include concentration limits to be met by set dates. It is in order to help meet these EU Air Quality Standards that low emission zones are being implemented.
There are many other measures that cities, countries and the European Union are taking to improve air quality in Europe. Traffic is one of the main pollution sources in towns and cities. Low Emission Zones are one of the key ways cities can reduce emissions from road traffic.