By Julio Godoy
European cities are debating the possibility of banning all-terrain vehicles from circulating on urban streets.
PARIS, (Tierramérica).- Vehicles known as ''4x4s'', originally developed for use in the rough terrain of rural areas, have turned into a status symbol in many of Europe's big cities, but are also at the center of a controversy because of the high emissions of pollutants generated by their engines.
Of those emissions, the one that stands out is carbon dioxide, produced in the combustion of fossil fuels and a leading contributor to the greenhouse effect and climate change.
The debate on the probable ban on four-wheel drive sports utility vehicles (SUVs) has only just begun, but is already heating up. London's Mayor Ken Livingstone said in late May that the people who drive these cars in the city are ''complete idiots''.
Livingstone said in an interview that he thought it reasonable that a farmer would drive a 4x4 in an area with bad roads. ''But that type of car should not circulate in London.''
Since 1997, the right to drive through Rome's historic center has been granted only to those who can prove they work in that zone and who pay an annual fee of 250 to 400 dollars. This policy has cut traffic by nearly 30 percent.
In Paris, the municipal government, which includes the environmental Les Verts (The Greens), announced on Jun. 8 a majority opinion to limit SUVs in the city, underscoring that these emit four times more carbon dioxide than standard cars.
That stance does not have the force of law, but does bode for other similar measures to be implemented.
''The four-wheel drive SUVs have no place in the cities,'' and the city government is preparing to ban them, Denis Baupin, transportation commissioner and leader of the Paris Greens, told Tierramérica.
That move will be part of France's plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 with the aim of curbing the greenhouse effect and climate change.
Under the Protocol, by 2010 France must not surpass 144 million tons of emissions of carbon dioxide. In other words, the country must reduce emissions to their 1990 levels.
The French government's ''Health and Environment'' plan, announced on Jun. 21, includes a supplementary tax of some 4,200 dollars on new cars that consume a lot of fuel, as 4x4s do, and a subsidy of around 1,000 dollars for ''cleaner'' cars.
But the conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), of President Jacques Chirac, and which heads the opposition in Paris, said the city council has engaged in a ''demagogic maneuver'', and the UMP leader on the council, Phillipe Goujon, argued that ''a ban on 4x4s will have no real effect on urban pollution.''
However, the latest report by the French environment and energy agency found that all-terrain sports vehicles produce an average of 232 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, while a standard four-door car generates an average of 146 grams per km.
The same report states that these 4x4s circulating in cities consume nearly 50 percent more fuel than other types of ''family cars''.
Figures from the French Health and Environmental Security Agency, published in May, signaled that around 10,000 people die annually in France from illnesses (especially respiratory) caused by air pollution.
Similar studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) in other European countries produced comparable results.
The WHO calculates, for example, that in Austria some 2,400 people die each year from illness related to the carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. The global environmental watchdog Greenpeace maintains that as many as 40,000 people die from such causes each year in Germany.
German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin, of Die Gruenen (The Green Party), has for two years been fighting for a regulation that would require all drivers of diesel-run vehicles to install a filter.
But his initiative runs into opposition from social-democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who environmentalists refer to as ''chancellor of automobiles'' for his firm defense of the car industry.
In early June, the Environment Ministry established the official aim of reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of diesel engines to 25 grams per km -- to achieve that level would require a filter.
Trittin bases his argument on the monthly report from Germany's environmental agency for June, which states that widespread use of the diesel engine filter would increase the life expectancy of Germans by three months.
Diesel engines are used in 44 percent of the vehicles in Germany, and 60 percent of those in France.
Land Rover, one of the world leaders in the 4x4 industry, announced last week that demand for its vehicles increased 11 percent in 2003.
According to social psychologist Martin Lloyd Elliot, a London resident, for the new urban upper middle class, driving an SUV provides a feeling of security in the midst of the ''city jungle''. An all-terrain vehicle represents power, social status, dominance and determination, he said.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.