Judges at the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig found that local authorities have the right to ban older, dirty diesels from their city centres — plunging millions of drivers into uncertainty.
The court did not impose such bans itself, leaving that up to city and municipal authorities. The judges did however urge them to “exercise proportionality” in enforcing the bans, and said any curbs should be introduced gradually.
The case centred around the smog-clogged cities of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, but could have nationwide repercussions.
The outcome marks a major victory for the environmentalist group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), which sued Stuttgart and Düsseldorf to force them to take action against the toxic nitrogen oxides and fine particles emitted by older diesel engines.
Lower-level judges had already backed their demand for driving bans but the states of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia appealed the rulings, saying such curbs should be decided at the federal level.
Judges in the Leipzig court on Tuesday. Photo: DPA
But Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the landmark decision to only have limited consequences.
“It's about individual cities where more needs to be done,” Merkel said in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon, adding that “it's not really about the entire area and all the car owners in Germany.”
The Chancellor also pointed out that many cities affected by dirty air “don't exceed the value limits too much.”
Meanwhile Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said after the ruling that German cities could reduce air pollution without banning older diesel vehicles.
“The court has not issued any driving bans but created clarity about the law. Driving bans can be avoided, and my goal is and will remain that they do not come into force,” Hendricks said.
“It's a great day for clean air in Germany,” said DUH chief Jürgen Resch.
Greenpeace also welcomed the verdict. “Every city can now defend its citizens' right to clean air,” the environmental group's spokesman Niklas Schinerl said.
Almost immediately after the verdict, the port city of Hamburg became the first to announce plans for a diesel driving ban on two busy roads from late April, with exceptions for residents, ambulances, city services and delivery vehicles.
The ruling will come as blow to the government and the nation's mighty auto industry who strongly oppose driving bans, fearing outrage from diesel owners whose lives stand to be disrupted and whose vehicles could lose their resale value.
In a nod to those concerns, presiding judge Andreas Korbmacher said “certain losses will have to be accepted”.
He also urged city and municipal authorities to avoid “a patchwork” of local measures.
Critics had earlier argued that the bans would be complicated to enforce and cause confusion among drivers.
10 million cars
Analysts at EY consultancy said drivers of all but the latest diesel models that adhere to the Euro 6 standards “can no longer be certain of being allowed to drive at any time, 365 days a week”.
It estimates that some 10 million vehicles will be affected across the country.
A street in Munich. Photo: DPA
Ahead of the closely-watched court decision, the German transport ministry had signalled it was already preparing for possible bans, with plans for slimmed-down version of diesel curbs appearing in the media over the weekend.
According to the proposals, the ministry could later this year update traffic regulations to include the option of city-ordered diesel bans on certain routes.
Concerns over the harmful effects of diesel have soared since Volkswagen admitted in 2015 to installing cheating devices in millions of cars that allowed them to secretly spew far more nitrogen oxide than legally allowed.
The poisonous gases have been linked to respiratory illnesses and heart problems, and are responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year.
Other carmakers have also come under suspicion for curbing or shutting off emissions controls, shattering diesel's “clean” reputation.
The industry has responded to “dieselgate” by offering software upgrades and trade-ins for newer, cleaner models but it has resisted calls for costly hardware fixes.
DUH chief Resch however said Tuesday's ruling could finally put real pressure on automakers to retrofit older cars with properly functioning emissions controls.
“I now expect the auto industry to deliver,” he said.
Markus Lewe, president of the Association of German Cities, urged Berlin to do more to push the auto industry to clean up its act.
Activists in front of the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig on Tuesday. Photo: DPA
“Cities don't want driving bans,” he said.
The government, long accused of going too easy on an industry that employs some 800,000 people, last year offered to create a billion-euro fund, partly paid for by industry, to improve public transport and upgrade fleets to electric buses.
Such measures are intended at least as much to placate local officials as well as those in Brussels — where Germany and a slew of other EU member states risk legal action after sailing past a deadline to reduce air pollution.