How will the ruling affect diesel drivers?
Owners of diesel cars face uncertainty, as it is up to local governments whether to ban older vehicles from certain parts of town.
Around 10 million of the 15 million diesel cars registered in Germany fall short of the latest Euro 6 EU emissions regulation, potentially making them eligible for a ban, as well as two million diesel trucks.
Commuters and car-dependent workers could be most affected, while some residents, emergency services and tradesmen will enjoy exceptions.
There are some restrictions to the ruling, according to judges at the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig on Tuesday. The bans would only apply to a fraction of the German roadway system.
A car in Cologne that complies with Euro 6 standards. Photo: DPA
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,” analysts at consulting firm EY said in response to the ruling.
The good news is that the judges also stated that the implementation of driving bans should be gradual, with only cars meeting the Euro 4 standard and lower likely to face immediate restrictions.
Will diesel drivers be financially compensated?
The ruling comes as a 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.
Auto industry expert Jörg Hönemann of consulting firm EY predicted on Tuesday that diesel owners will suffer “a significant reduction in the value of their vehicle”.
Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats, said on Wednesday that diesel drivers had been left in the lurch by the ruling, pointing out that the government had encouraged the purchase of diesel engines in recent years.
“Driving bans are wrong. Politicians have almost pushed diesel vehicles onto citizens and businesses for years. If their use is now banned that is expropriation and a breech of promise in one,” Lindner wrote on Twitter.
Presiding judge Andreas Korbmacher did little to reassure drivers of older diesel models, saying that “certain losses will have to be accepted” and that there was no obligation to compensate diesel drivers.
But the judges also claimed that bans won't necessarily lead to a collapse in the used car market.
Stuttgart and Düsseldorf
People in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf – the two smog-clogged cities in Tuesday's case – could be among the first hit by the ban.
As a result of the ruling, which obligates Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) to consider driving bans, the capital cities of these states must now seek to control air pollution limits as quickly as possible, according to Handelsblatt. In Stuttgart, a phased introduction of the ban will be considered.
In the Baden-Württemberg capital there could already be initial restrictions for older diesel engines by the end of this year. But with judges stating that the ban should be gradual, the more numerous and more recent Euro 5 cars in Stuttgart are safe until at least September 2019.
The outcome of the case is a 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. High levels of nitrogen oxide have been linked to heart problems and respiratory illnesses.
Baden-Württemberg and NRW had appealed the rulings, saying such curbs should be decided at the federal level.
There are likely to be concrete consequences for diesel drivers and residents in Hamburg.
Almost immediately after the verdict, the port city became the first to announce plans for a limited diesel driving ban on two busy roads in the Altona district from late April – with exceptions for Altona residents, ambulances, city services and delivery vehicles.
Hamburg seems to have been expecting the ruling – the city has already made up the signs warning people they are entering the diesel restricted zone.
The driving ban in the city state is expected to immediately apply to all vehicles that do not comply with the Euro 6 standard.
The Berlin Senate also plans to review whether driving bans should be introduced in the nation’s capital from 2019.
Will any other German cities be affected?
The ruling is likely to be important for the entire country and have nationwide significance.
Even though judges have only ruled on the two cases in NRW and Baden-Württemberg, for each city in which limit values are exceeded, it is now generally possible for authorities to implement driving bans for older diesel engines in an effort to combat air pollution.
Munich, Stuttgart and Cologne were among the worst offenders of some 70 German cities which recorded average nitrogen dioxide levels above EU thresholds in 2017, according to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA).
Aside from Hamburg, however, in most cities it is still open as to where and whether driving bans should be imposed at all.
Further driving bans across Germany could be limited to certain streets and city zones, as is the case with Hamburg.
Can driving bans be countered with other measures?
The Leipzig court also offered a way out by stating that diesel bans in German cities could be avoided if air conditions improve; it is up to individual cities to test their own air quality.
Environmentalists worry that cities could improve air quality around pollution sensors ensuring Germany won't have an issue complying with EU emissions regulations, but not solving the general problem of poor air quality.
But the air pollution sensors are not randomly distributed and placed in areas and roads where they’re expected to produce representative results.