headlights on autobahn at dusk

As court case looms, Germany’s likely leaders pledge to protect diesel

Germany’s incoming government has vowed to do everything in its power to stop diesel restrictions coming into force. Environmental lawyers have denounced the move, criticising protection for industry at the expense of public health.

Germany’s air quality is so poor that it is in the midst of legal proceedings by the European Commission, as well as a spate of regional court cases taken by ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH). Triggered by this wave of court actions, three separate German cities (Münich, Stuttgart and Düsseldorf) have been asked to introduce “Dieselfahrverbote” – areas where diesel vehicles older than a certain age will not be allowed to drive. According to German courts, restricting diesel vehicles is by far the fastest way to bring down illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.

But despite diesel restrictions being the quickest way to protect people’s health, political leaders are anxious to ensure they do not come into force, making it a top political priority throughout coalition talks – aversion tactics included software updates on more than 5 million diesel vehicles. But a judge in Stuttgart had already ruled the software retrofit was insufficient and that diesel restrictions were unavoidable.

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “It is a legal and moral imperative for Germany’s new leadership to make the nation’s air safe to breathe. In many of these cities, nitrogen dioxide levels are double what’s legally permitted. That’s a serious threat to people’s health. And yet political leaders have publically and explicitly promised to block the quickest route to bringing pollution down. These are false priorities – industry cannot have this kind of immunity.”

Germany’s ‘Sofortprogramm’, launched as a reaction to the catastrophic fallout of Dieselgate, has promised nationwide electrification, smoothed-out logistics, better cycle and public transport networks, and a fund, part-paid by industry, to deliver it all. All are yet to materialise. The programme also fails to get to the heart of the problem – excessive emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel vehicles.

An imminent Supreme Court hearing will clear up legal uncertainty over who has the power to introduce restrictions on diesel – regional authorities, or the overall Federal government. Either way, the outcome on February 22 will make waves in Germany.

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Rolf van Melis