German court allows cities to ban diesel-fueled cars

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_gavel.jpegBERLIN – A high German court pounded another nail in the coffin for diesel vehicles Tuesday, in a case that is likely to see older and dirtier cars banned from certain city centers in Europe's biggest carmaker, and maybe eventually across the continent.

The case pitted an environment group against the automotive hubs of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf: lower courts ruled that these cities have to take quick action to clean up their air to meet EU standards – including banning certain cars – and the Federal Administrative Court dismissed the case, tacitly agreeing.

The ruling delivers a blow to Germany's beleaguered auto industry, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which has continued to implement diesel-friendly measures, despite emissions scandals that have rocked auto-giants Volkswagen, Mercedes and others in recent years.

"Politicians have caused the problem," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor with the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "We have bad laws, and these laws allowed vehicles to be brought into market that are catastrophic for the environment."

In Europe, diesel fuel has been branded for the past three decades as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to gasoline, largely due to the fact that diesel vehicles are more fuel-efficient and emit less carbon dioxide than gasoline counterparts.

As a result, for many years, European governments created massive tax incentives for purchasing diesel vehicles. Last year, 41 percent of all new passenger cars registered in the European Union were diesel, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Such policies, however, didn't take into account that diesel vehicles spew out more particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere than traditional gasoline engines, toxins directly related to serious health issues.

The issue blew up after German auto manufacturers installed so-called defeat devises in their vehicles that shut off during road tests, allowing for vehicles that didn't comply with emissions standards to still enter the market.

They got caught.

Germany auto giant Volkswagen was fined more than $20 billion in the US after the defeat devices were discovered in 2015. The discovery set off an uproar in Germany and across Europe.

However, in Germany, more than half of the country's trade surplus and one in five jobs are linked to the auto industry, and government officials avoided the issue, stalled and later took half measures, say analysts.

Still, the debate raged, especially after new evidence came to light last summer that German automakers had worked together to collectively influence the market – Chancellor Merkel's government reached a deal with the industry to only update emissions software in 5 million affected vehicles to avoid the need for driving bans and decrease emissions. The automakers managed to avoid the costly hardware upgrades needed, say environmentalists.

German courts, however, have deemed that such measures don't go far enough.

With the bans now deemed legal in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf – which would likely apply to all diesel vehicles made before 2015 by September 2019 – bans in other German cities are bound to follow, said Remo Klinger, an attorney representing German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), the plaintiff in the case.

Meanwhile, DUH currently has 19 cases in litigation against German municipalities.

"All of our lawsuits have been made on the assumption that the fastest possible compliance with air-quality limits isn't possible without these driving bans," said Klinger, adding that the successful case has now set precedent.

The German automotive industry, meanwhile, says the bans are not necessary.

The industry's free software updates for the newest models of diesels, "along with environmental premiums and municipal initiatives, which the automotive industry as a whole has already begun to implement, will rapidly and significantly improve air-quality in cities," said Matthias Wissmann, president of Germany's Federal Association of the Automotive Industry.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the public not to jump to conclusions about the future of their vehicles.

"On this day, it's important to keep in mind: This is about specific cities in which there's still a need for further discussion," she said shortly after the ruling. "This really isn't about all areas and all motorists in Germany."

But Dudenhöffer says that Merkel's government has falsely placated the auto industry for too long: Measures could have been taken years ago to do away with fuel subsidies for diesel, and use the money to reoutfit older, more pollutant-heavy models.

The result will be the implementation of the controversial bans and the end of the diesel market, he added.

"This decision isn't the beginning of the end for diesel," he said. "The point of no return was crossed long ago – (with) dieselgate in America."

Greg Archer, director of clean vehicles with think tank Transport & Environment in Brussels, said the diesel market in both Germany and Europe has been irreparably damaged – sales of diesels are rapidly declining in the United Kingdom and Germany, and are taking root in other European markets as well.

Today's decision is bound to echo across the continent, he adds.

"We know of cities across Europe that are now considering diesel bans that previously weren't," he said.

In the end, mishaps of industry and the government are a lose-lose for everyone – including consumers, he added.

"Drivers are going to be turned off to diesel by fears that they won't be able to drive those cars into cities in the future, residual values are going to be much less than they'd hoped for, and the industry is going to be faced with potentially enormous costs trying to clean up past mistakes."

A version of this story can be found in Washington Times.
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