Chancellor doubles funds set aside to improve air quality to avert court-enforced diesel ban and backlash from motorists
September 5, 2017 — With less than three weeks until the German elections, pressure is mounting on Angela Merkel to tackle the deadly smog in a large number of cities or face a court-enforced diesel ban and backlash from millions of motorists faced with plummeting resale values.
More than 90 cities with excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution could potentially outlaw diesel cars from their centres when the country’s federal administrative court rules early next year.
Addressing the Bundestag for the final time in the parliamentary term on Tuesday morning, the chancellor tried to reassure the owners of Germany’s approximately 15m diesel cars by promising to do “everything in our powers to make sure there won’t be such bans”.
The chancellor, who on Monday had also doubled the funds set aside to help cities improve air quality by a further €500m (£460m), said her party would pursue alternatives. “We Christian Democrats don’t work with bans but try to allow a reasonable transition,” she told the chamber.
Despite the potential scale of the damage to the German car industry, the diesel scandal had until this week played a relatively minor role in the election campaign.
But amid looming judicial threats to ban cars from the most polluted city centres, such as Munich and Stuttgart, the government has been forced to demonstrate that it is taking concrete actions to avert a public relations disaster.
But legal experts warned the chancellor will probably be forced into an embarrassing U-turn if, as expected, she is re-elected on 24 September.
“The court cases are already in motion, and Merkel won’t be able to extricate herself from the process unless she takes drastic action,” said lawyer Remo Klinger, who is working with environmental group DUH to introduce the diesel ban.
“Germany only has two options: a hardware update to make sure that diesel cars are fitted with functioning filters, or an outright ban,” he told the Guardian. “All other proposals are not worth taking seriously.”
In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine over the weekend, Merkel ruled out a hardware update, arguing that it would “minimise the car industry’s financial scope for investing in modern technology”.
Green party co-leader Cem Özdemir accused Merkel of “shedding crocodile tears for German carmakers”, saying “it is your own inaction that is about to introduce a diesel ban by force”.
The Greens are pushing for a system of “blue plaques” for diesel cars with engines that meet EU emissions limits, which would amount to a ban on an estimated 30-40% of cars that do not. It could allow exceptions for workers who rely on diesel engines for their business.
Environmental experts have also criticised Merkel for stating that the air pollution affecting a large number of German cities is only indirectly linked to the emission-cheating software installed by companies which displayed false nitrogen dioxide levels.
Merkel was accused of playing down the emissions scandal by saying that cities would still suffer from excessive pollution levels, even if the cars were not producing such high amounts of poisonous gas.
“Even if these cars pumped out emissions at approved levels, even if this break down of trust hadn’t taken place, we would still have the environmental problems we have,” Merkel said on Sunday during her televised duel against her Social Democrat rival, Martin Schulz.
During the debate, Merkel said she was “really angry” with the car industry, describing the scandal as “quite a shambles” – but experts accused her of trying to lessen the blame on the car industry.
“I have hardly ever heard such nonsense,” Axel Friedrich, an emissions expert at German Environment Aid, who previously worked for the government. He said Merkel was “out of touch” with the situation on German roads, saying he had tested cars that were pumping out up to 18 times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide.
Friedrich told the Süddeutsche Zeitung he was convinced air pollution levels would fall by more than 60% to acceptable levels if action was taken. “Seventy per cent of air pollution problems in cities are down to diesel emissions,” he said.
The EU allows a maximum of 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre. In Stuttgart and Munich the figure is at least double that and in a further 51 cities the levels are above 40.
Merkel’s pledge to set up the sustainability fund to allow local authorities to take measures to reduce diesel-related air pollution is her most decisive move so far. With immediate effect she has announced the establishment of a coordination team of government ministries, states and municipalities to advise on projects that can be put in place.
But environmental groups and a number of mayors have been quick to criticise the plans as too little, too late and, apart from the sustainability fund, too vague.
Fritz Kuhn, mayor of Stuttgart, the worst-affected German city with emission levels double the limit set by the EU, said the industry – which had been due to contribute €250m to the fund – should be obliged to work with municipalities to solve the problems.
He said his city was keen to purchase electric buses “but, on the part of the car industry, no one has given us any offers”, he said. His only option was to refit old buses instead, he said.
Mayors have pinpointed buses as a big polluter. Though they make up only 1% of vehicles on the roads, they produce 20% of emissions.
The diesel car market has fallen significantly since the emission scandal erupted, and has been further affected by the threat of driving bans in cities.