Berlins Environmental Zone

Only vehicles meeting certain exhaust gas standards are allowed to enter the inner city area. Vehicles with particularly high emission levels are banned since February 2010.

It is a wide spread prejudice that bad air is a characteristic of cities. This is not the case. Cities are not by nature places with heavy polluted air, but they are more likely affected. It has to be clear to the urban population that clean air is not a privilege of rural life. Clean air is a basic right of everyone. The decision to live in a city must not go along with the acceptance of bad air. Only bad managed cities suffer from air pollution. But it takes serious action to keep the air clean. Many cities worldwide follow various strategies to improve the living quality of their inhabitants and start programs to reduce air pollution. In western cities the biggest impact does not come from industry but from private vehicles.  Therefore cities launch initiatives aiming at traffic, like public bicycle rental programs (e.g. Vélib’ in Paris 2007), congestion charges (e.g. in London 2003) and environmental zones, keeping heavy polluting vehicles out of the city. The environmental zone of Berlin is subject of this article. 

About 3.4 Million people inhabit Berlin, capital of Germany. The number of cars per 1000 people is with 317 the lowest of all German major cities and is middle-ranking among other Western European cities. The modal split, describing the share of particular traffic participants, says that 43% of all trips in Berlin are done by foot or by bicycle, 26% are covered by public transport and the remaining 31% by car or motorbike. Although the population of Berlin has only slightly grown in recent 20 years, the traffic recorded an increase of 20%. This contributes to a higher contamination of the air. The EU set guidelines for fine dust (PM10 = particular matter < 10 micrometer) and nitrogen dioxide (NO) concentration in the air. Exceeding the limits for fine dust (50 µg/m3 on more than 35 days per year or a yearly average value of more than 40 µg/m3), a city within the EU must take serious action. That’s why Berlin commits to establish a Clean Air and Action Plan with the environmental zone as its centrepiece. 


         The green sticker is compulsory for vehicles inside Berlins environmental zone."    




                   "Traffic signs mark the extent of the environmental zone."       


About 50% of the fine dust in Berlin is from agriculture, traffic and industries emissions from outside the city, to some extend from far away. These emissions cannot be reduced with local measures in Berlin. The other half is mainly caused be street traffic (exhaust; dust from street surface, tyres and brake pads). Traffic is also the source for 80 % of the nitrogen dioxide pollution. To reduce the traffic related emissions Berlin Municipality established the environmental zone. The 88 km2 area includes the inner city part of Berlin surrounded by the suburban rail ring. These are densely populated inner city districts with a population of about one Million people.

The environmental zone allows only vehicles satisfying specific exhaust gas standards to pass the zone. The traffic restrictions of the environmental zone apply permanently, not only for certain heavy polluted days.  A sticker on the windshield indicates the pollutant class. The zone was established in two steps. From January 2008 on only petrol engi­ne passenger cars with a closed-loop catalytic converter (Pollutant Class 4) and diesel engine cars with particular filter (Pollutant Class 2-4) got a sticker for their cars and therefore the permission to enter the environmental zone. In a second step, beginning in February 2010, the measures were tightened. Only cars having the green sticker of Pollutant Class 4 were allowed within the zone, which means petrol engi­ne passenger cars with a closed-loop catalytic converter and diesel engine cars satisfying Euro 4 norm. By retrofitting a diesel particulate filter a vehicle with Pollutant Class 3 can be upgraded to pollutant class 4. Other cars with extremely high emissions of harmful sub­stances were banned outside the inner city. The green sticker not only permits to enter the environmental zone of Berlin, but also similar zones in several German cities, like Hannover and Stuttgart. A violation of the zonal restriction will be punished with a fine of 40 Euro and a penalty point in the German Central Register of Traffic Offenders (a high point status leads to a driving ban).  

It is too early to expect significant results about the influence of the environmental zone on the air quality in Berlin by now. Berlin’s Senate Department for Health, Environment and Consumer Protection announced that additional supporting measures have been and will be implemented like promoting of non-motorized traffic and public transport, 30 km speed limits on selected main roads, traffic-managing and traffic-controlling measures and more. Nevertheless critics ask why the environmental zone covers only the inner city area and not the whole city. They also point out that the bus fleet and municipal vehicles should function as a model and should of course meet the restrictions too. All this will be necessary for Berlin to become an ecological and healthy city – a city with clean air.

Robert Obenaus


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