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How diesel bans have ignited a debate about dirty tricks and dodgy money

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How diesel bans have ignited a debate about dirty tricks and dodgy money
Photo: DPA
16:19 CET+01:00
We explore just how environmentally (un)friendly is diesel, and if the biggest polluter of all in Germany is being left out of the debate.

On a cold November morning, a little grey instrument is busy measuring the nitrogen dioxide in the air on a street in southern Berlin. During rush hour the device will record levels up to 50 percent higher than the legal upper limit for the noxious gas.

The street - Silberstein Straße - is ranked as one of the most polluted in the country. But it is far from unique. These grey instruments have been taking tabs of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) all across Germany. And the results show that in over 70 cities, average NO2 levels breach the EU limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

SEE ALSO: Berlin: The latest German city to experiment with going car-free

Diesel cars have been thumbed as the major cause of this pollution. Environmentalists claim that NO2 emissions are having a devastating impact on public health. And, to the anger of the car industry, they have been able to persuade the courts that diesel should be banned from city centres.

But it would be too easy to read this as a David vs. Goliath tale of plucky activists taking on the might of Volkswagen & co.

Many in Germany have been left seething at the bans. Backers of the German car industry - which employs 800,000 people - claim the campaign against diesel is being driven by a puritanical green lobby who are manipulating the evidence. They also say that the money behind the environmental lobby shows that their motives are far from pure.

Silbersteinstraße in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Diesel: from hero to zero

Diesel was once seen as the green alternative to petrol. It produces less carbon dioxide in the combustion process and was promoted as a vital tool for bringing down greenhouse gas emissions. At the turn of the century, a fuel that was once mainly used in industrial vehicles quickly replaced petrol as the staple technology for private cars.

But the problem that consumers weren't aware of was that diesel engines produce more NO2 than their petrol equivalents due to combustion happening at higher temperatures. This output can only be counteracted with expensive cleaning mechanisms in the exhaust system. But even then, diesel produces more NO2 than petrol.

The opinion put forward by both the green movement and the German Environment Ministry is that NO2 has a crippling impact on public health. The Environment Ministry blames the gas for 10,000 premature deaths and 800,000 respiratory illnesses in Germany every year. Particularly vulnerable are children, old people, asthmatics and those (often poor) who have to live directly on busy streets.

One organization, German Environmental Help (DUH), has led the battle to rid German streets of diesel. For over a decade the DUH has been taking cities to court over their NO2 emissions. City governments resisted bans, fearing disruption to the lives of commuters. But in February the DUH scored a landmark success when it persuaded the highest court in the country that bans were a necessary weapon in the battle against pollution.

Starting in January, Stuttgart will be the first city to bring in a wide-scale ban - all cars that don't have the latest diesel engines will be prohibited from entering the downtown area. Anyone who disobeys can expect an €80 fine.

Later in the year diesel will be verboten in Bonn, Frankfurt, Essen and other cities.

DUH head Jürgen Resch promised that the bans would finally break the strong hold the car industry has over Germany's government.

“This ruling is a disaster for the government which one-sidedly backs the greed for profit by the carmakers while leaving 10 million owners of manipulated diesel cars alone,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Diesel driving bans 'self-destructive': German transit minister

Resch was referring to the scandal that broke in 2015 when Volkswagen was found to have manipulated software in their diesel engines to make it seem like they emitted lower quantities of nitrogen oxides than they actually did.

The scandal rocked the German car industry to its core - and the reverberations are still being felt today. Prosecutors have raided offices at BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, as all the major car companies are suspected of playing fast and loose with public health to protect their own profit margins.

Stuttgart, where a diesel ban will come into force in January. Photo: DPA

Officious bureaucrats

But it isn't just car makers that have been accused of dirty tricks. Opponents of the bans question why it is only Germany that is blocking diesel, despite all EU countries having to comply with the same rules.

Oliver Luskin from the opposition Free Democrats says that over-officious German bureaucrats have been positioning the NO2 measuring instruments to give an exaggerated picture of the danger.

The EU has guidelines for how the measuring instruments should be placed, but these allow some room for interpretation. They must be between 1.5 metres and four metres from the ground, no further than 10 metres from the street, and no closer than 25 metres to a junction. The differences may sound small, but a change of a few metres can determine whether an NO2 reading is over or under the limit.

According to Luskin, the idea of the EU guidelines is that instruments are placed so as to give an idea of the air we breathe in a typical day.

“That is why, in Vienna for example, measurements are taken in a pedestrian zone, where people usually spend most of their time,” he told Deutschlandfunk recently. “We in Germany have a different logic. We measure as close as possible to where emissions occur.”

Luskin and others argue that bureaucrats from state environment ministries, which are often run by the environmentalist Green party, have been positioning the devices next to heavy traffic so as to give the most extreme picture possible of NO2 levels in the air.

In Mainz, where a ban is being considered for the second half of next year, the environment ministry was found to have gone a step further and broken with the EU guidelines altogether - placing a measuring instrument closer to a junction than the permitted 25 metres.

The German Environment Ministry has denied wrongdoing. A spokesman told The Local that an independent review of measuring stations in North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) showed that, if anything they were placed too laxly.

“If NRW accepts the recommended changes, the measuring devices would be expected to record higher NO2 levels not lower ones,” the spokesman said.

SEE ALSO: Germany eases diesel vehicle bans, angering environmentalists

Vehicles stuck in a jam on the B455 towards Mainz. Photo: DPA

‘Less logic than a shaman'

Critics aren't just attacking how bureaucrats measure NO2 levels. An article published last month by the influential newspaper Die Zeit has led to furious discussion on the EU limit itself.

Back in the 1990s the EU set the World Health Organization (WHO) the task of coming up with a limit on safe levels of NO2 in the air, wrote Alexander Kekule, a professor of microbiology at the Martin Luther University in Halle.

There is no dispute that high doses of NO2 irritate our airwaves, but the scientists struggled come up with a sensible value for when small amounts in the air pose a threat: studies into had been carried out too inconsistently. Too little attention had been paid to other environmental factors and it was next to impossible to say whether NO2 itself was causing respiratory problems or whether other gases emitted from cars were at fault.

In the end the WHO scientists decided to estimate the extra NO2 a gas stove pumps into a kitchen at 40 micrograms per cubic metre and recommended this as the extra amount that we can safely breathe in. “Even today there is no evidence that this limit has anything to do with the health effects of NO2,” Kekule concluded.

For critics, Kekule's analysis was confirmation that one of the most radical changes in transport policy in decades was being driven by ideology not reason.

“The predictions of an African shaman are more evidence-based,” wrote Der Spiegel columnist Jan Fleischhauer. “But that doesn't stop the authorities from blocking cities and motorways until every driver has been taught the lesson that diesel is an outdated technology.”

SEE ALSO: Volkswagen says next generation of combustion engine cars must be its last

The Toyota lobby?

As if the waters of the debate weren't already murky enough, the DUH's reputation has also been dragged through the mud, thanks to its peculiar sources of financing.

A quirk in German law allows certain licenced organizations to fine companies that don't follow the rules. The DUH is one such organization. If, for example, a car dealer does not fully inform customers about a vehicle's fuel consumption, they can expect a letter from the DUH demanding they pay a fine. The income is lucrative - the DUH makes several million euros every year off of these penalties.

For critics, this financing shows that the DUH doesn't just have the public interest in mind. Strictly enforced environmental regulation is an essential part of its business model.

The DUH are also financed by industry. Notable among their backers has been Toyota - Volkswagen's biggest international competitor. The Japanese car maker has given the DUH tens of thousands of euros every year for close to two decades. It has a relatively small share of the German diesel market and could gain from the disruption bans would cause to Volkswagen.

DUH head Resch insists that his organization's intentions are honourable. They only fine companies because the authorities have proved incapable of enforcing the law themselves, he claims. And the money from Toyota? It only makes up a tiny fraction of the DUH's overall budget and has no influence on their lawsuits against diesel.

But the negative publicity is hurting. Toyota recently announced it was ending its cooperation, while pressure is growing for the government to rescind DUH's licence to fine.

‘Don't trust Dr. Marlboro'

So who should one trust? An environmental lobby with a vested interest in tight regulation, or conservatives who seem a little too keen to side with Volkswagen over asthmatics and children?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer. Expert opinion is divided. The Bundestag's special committee on diesel has come to the cautious conclusion that the dangers of NO2 “are contested” but that the evidence that it is linked to poor health is growing. Some experts say the NO2 limit needs to be even stricter, others argue that the gas is relatively harmless in small doses.

Others are willing to stretch their necks out a little further. “Of course, Doctor Marlboro says that smoking isn't harmful for our health. The same type of expert is promoted by the automotive industry to say that nitrogen dioxide is completely unproblematic,” Resch from the DUH warned in an interview with Deutschlandfunk.

Fleischhauer from Der Spiegel says that the inevitable consequence of less diesel is more petrol. The result will be sea levels rising “until water floods our cellars.”

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The Local is not responsible for content posted by users.
Arman Flint - 20 Dec 2018 19:41
Why don't you dump coal and go back to nuclear-generated electricity?
Chris Owen - 21 Dec 2018 09:19
Agreed, Arman Flint. I will never understand why they shut down working nukes. Complete waste of investment!
Liane - 24 Jan 2019 13:32
I agree, less Diesel will mean more petrol will mean sea levels rising. But that effect could be mitigated by simply getting rid of factory farming of animals. I wonder whose pockets the green parties are in that they blatantly omit this serious threat from all public discussion. Grow plants to feed people not animals! You fight hunger at the same time as reducing CO2 emissions and you save millions of gallons of water to give to people dying of thirst. But that's too simple and the meat industry lobby is too powerful to attack.
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