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Market-changing moment as Germany’s highest court orders diesel bans

In an overwhelming court victory in Germany’s highest national court, judges have ruled German cities are under obligation to introduce diesel restrictions with immediate effect. The court said national-level laws could be bypassed to allow regional authorities to protect people’s health in areas where air pollution exceeds legal limits. The decision is final.

Having railed against action on diesel, the Federal government is now under pressure to introduce a nationwide “blue badge” scheme to make these bans coherent between cities.

Regional courts in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf had ruled diesel bans were the most effective way to bring illegal nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution down as quickly as possible, but the authorities appealed the rulings. Today, these appeals were rejected in a landmark decision by the Federal Administrative Court.

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “Germany’s national law was preventing regional authorities from protecting people’s health. But this exceptional ruling has made it absolutely clear that German cities have first and foremost to comply with EU law – and therefore have the power and the obligation to put diesel restrictions in place. This is another huge win for people and a clear example of courts stepping in where government action is found wanting.”

The ruling will have major implications for all of the clean air cases open in German cities, brought by national NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), and environment lawyers ClientEarth – 19 in total. It also puts the automobile industry at an unprecedented crossroads.

Thornton added: “Legal action on dirty air is taking place all over Europe and this stunning ruling is likely to make waves in all countries struggling with illegal levels of NO2. 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 towards a cleaner era for transport.”

The court recognised that immediate bans on all diesels would not be a proportionate solution. It has said all diesels up to and including Euro 4 can be restricted. From September 2019, bans will also apply to Euro 5 diesel vehicles. The decision did not take into account research that suggests Euro 6 vehicles pollute on average 4.5x more on the roads than they do in laboratory tests.

“The ruling could finally be the trigger for manufacturers to fund hardware retrofits for older diesel vehicles, having exhausted all other avenues to protect diesel vehicles from restrictions.

DUH CEO Jürgen Resch said: “Today is a big day for clean air in Germany. The highest German court has issued a stinging rebuke to the Federal government. Angela Merkel now needs to extricate herself from the grip of the car industry and introduce policies that protect people suffering because of diesel pollution, and the people who feel they have been cheated after buying Euro 5 and Euro 6 diesel vehicles.

“The judgment also poses a real debacle for the heads of Germany’s biggest diesel manufacturers, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen. They must now consider financing the retrofitting of diesel vehicles. The court-imposed deadline of September 2019 for particularly polluting Euro 5 diesels should be a long enough window for these vehicles to be bought back or retrofitted.”

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