Court ruling marks a ‘dark day’ for German diesel cars


Germany’s car culture is under attack.

A federal court in Leipzig said Tuesday that Düsseldorf and Stuttgart can ban the dirtiest diesel cars from their streets in order to meet EU pollution standards. The verdict will have an impact across the country and deals a blow to the car worship that rules Germany’s politics, economy and lifestyle.

The car industry is Germany’s largest, and one of the reasons the country is an export juggernaut. For decades the German dream for many has meant a house in the suburbs and a well-engineered German car to make the commute to work.

But that dream is choking many cities. The EU says there are 28 urban areas in Germany persistently breaching limits for nitrogen dioxide — a pollutant largely caused by diesel engines and the main ingredient of smog.

“If public transport connections were more attractive and better, most people would shift” — Peter Liese, German MEP

Activists are starting to sue cities for failing to clean up their air, and Tuesday’s court ruling means that cities can act to ban polluting cars — a step that politicians and the industry have fought very hard to prevent. Widespread urban driving bans would demand expensive upgrades to public transport and technical changes from carmakers, plus a shift in social attitude.

“This is another huge win for people and a clear example of courts stepping in where government action is found wanting,” said James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, which together with German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe has filed legal cases against several German cities breaching EU air quality standards.

“It also marks a dark day for diesel, which is already facing heavy market struggles. Industry could not have received a clearer message: Now is the time to innovate toward a cleaner era for transport,” he said.

Die Autokultur

Germans love their cars, something of which politicians are very much aware. Most Germans use their cars to commute to work, according to the German statistics agency. And about a third of the country’s 45 million cars are diesel-powered, according to the car lobby VDA.

“The ruling is bad news for affected diesel drivers and owners of older petrol cars,” the Federation of German Consumer Organizations said in a statement.

The resale value of older cars is likely to plummet as there won’t be much demand for vehicles that may not be allowed into city centers.

The future of German transport is likely to mean much more reliance on urban transport and much less tooling along the autobahn in a diesel-powered sedan.

“Of course, there are always people who say, ‘We want to be our own master, it stinks in buses,'” said Peter Liese, a German MEP and the environmental spokesperson for the European People’s Party. “But if public transport connections were more attractive and better, most people would shift.”

So far Germans aren’t keen on making the switch from cars to buses. Just 14 percent of them regularly commuted by public transport in 2016, according to the German statistics agency. Even for short trips of up to 5 kilometers, 40 percent opted for a car, while only 8 percent used railways and buses.

A biennial survey by the German Environment Ministry and the German Environment Agency published last year found that 70 percent of those surveyed use cars daily or several times a week. “The population hasn’t yet grasped the urgency of the challenge to drastically change their behavior,” it found.

But that’s going to have to change if Germany is to meet its clean air targets — the country could be sent to the European Court of Justice by the European Commission and face massive fines if it doesn’t clean up its act.

Jusges sit at the hearing in Leipzig | Sebastian Willnow/AFP via Getty Images

Tuesday’s decision is an “intervention that strongly affects how we organize commuter traffic around and into cities,” said Michael Münter, who heads the sustainable mobility and planning department in the office of Stuttgart’s mayor. “Many cities have been working for years to redirect commuter traffic, with more or less success.”

The ruling is also going to force a rethink on the part of the car industry. The sector, with prompting from politicians, opted for diesel technology years ago as a way of meeting Germany’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments. But while diesel emits less of those pollutants than gasoline, it is much more problematic at street level.

“Diesel technology has played a particularly large role in Germany,” Liese said.

“The car industry caused the problem … we need not only software updates but also technical upgrades” — Barbara Hendricks, German environment minister

The industry was already tainted by the 2015 Dieselgate scandal, when Volkswagen rigged millions of its diesel cars to cheat on emissions tests. Earlier this year, it turned out the industry financed emissions tests on caged monkeys. Now it faces growing calls from politicians to undertake expensive fixes to cars to make them less polluting.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks and Transport Minister Christian Schmidt on Tuesday stressed that it was important to avoid driving bans, pointing to other measures to urgently cut air pollution.

“The car industry caused the problem … we need not only software updates but also technical upgrades which bring down nitrogen dioxide emissions by so much that you can continue to drive into inner cities,” Hendricks said.

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