German court ruling could lead to urban driving bans
German politicians are resisting pressure to ban cars that spew dirty diesel fumes from urban centers to protect the country’s powerful car industry.
That could become a lot tougher after a court ruling expected Thursday.
A federal administrative court in Leipzig will decide whether local authorities can impose driving bans. The court is looking at two specific cases — Düsseldorf and Stuttgart — and the verdict will have implications for the rest of the country.
“The decision in Leipzig will determine for all local authorities in Germany whether driving bans are legally permissible,” said Michael Münter, who heads the sustainable mobility and planning department in the Stuttgart mayor’s office.
At the moment German federal law doesn’t leave cities and states much room to bar certain categories of cars in urban centers and go beyond what the federal government in Berlin does.
Environmentalists are watching Thursday’s proceedings closely, ready to pounce with new political pressure whichever way the ruling goes. If the court says local authorities are able to set bans, it will put local authorities on the spot to do so. If it says they can’t, Berlin will be under pressure to change the rules so they can.
Cities are already under rising pressure from environmental campaigners and courts to get the dirtiest cars off of city streets. Germany has been in breach of EU air quality standards for years and now faces the threat of being sent to the European Court of Justice by the European Commission.
The Commission says Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Cologne are among 28 urban areas persistently breaching limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is largely caused by diesel engines and is the main ingredient of smog. Average annual air pollution limits of 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter of air were breached in 90 German cities in 2016, with Stuttgart and Munich being the dirtiest, according to the federal environment ministry. That number dropped to 70 last year, according to data from the federal environment agency released in January.
The federal government has so far shown little enthusiasm for driving restrictions. And German politicians of all stripes scramble to avoid diesel bans, worried about the economic hit to the car industry and car owners across the country as bans bite into diesel cars’ values.
City governments, however, face the threat of courts finding them in breach of clean air law and then imposing action on them, including driving bans. Environmental NGOs are pushing Berlin to set up a national program to keep the dirtiest cars out of city centers.
It’s a sticker on car windows — different authorities wouldn’t have different rules” — Michael Münter, Stuttgart mayor’s office
One such idea is a blue sticker system, where only the cleanest cars would get the sticker and the right to drive downtown. This would be similar to an existing green sticker scheme in place since 2006 that bars the dirtiest cars from environmentally sensitive urban areas.
Some local authorities, including Stuttgart, also support the option as a last-resort measure to crack down on air pollution levels.
Proponents argue the blue sticker measure would allow for a national system, instead of a patchwork of local rules created under court orders, making it easier to enforce. But the federal government hasn’t backed the idea.
“It’s a sticker on car windows — different authorities wouldn’t have different rules,” Münter said, adding that the government’s refusal to consider a blue sticker scheme is raising eyebrows. “It’s difficult to comprehend the government’s position.”
Dozens of German cities face legal challenges — led by the NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe and, in many cases, with support from activist law firm ClientEarth — demanding they take additional steps to cut air pollution.
“If the court says local authorities have the power to do it, it will have a trigger effect on all other cases, because local authorities will have no excuse not to take action,” said Ugo Taddei, a lawyer at ClientEarth.
And if Thursday’s outcome suggests local authorities don’t have the power to go beyond federal law, the federal government in Berlin will face pressure to change the rules to allow such measures, Taddei said.
Brussels is also urging Germany to take action.
Facing a possible referral to the European Court of Justice and steep fines, Berlin last week signaled support for limited car restrictions.
“If required, we will support our cities to introduce effective traffic regulations in dedicated streets in order to reduce pollution induced from cars with combustion engines,” three German ministers wrote in a letter to the European Commission.
A new German government will propose a “new legal framework with the purpose of enabling states and cities to establish binding requirements and emission limit values for buses and cabs” and plans to introduce low-emission zones for heavy-goods vehicles, they wrote.