German lawmakers fight diesel bans, angering environmentalists

Lawmakers in Germany moved Friday to make bans on older diesel vehicles in city centres less likely, angering environmentalists by backing off strict EU-wide pollution thresholds.

German lawmakers fight diesel bans, angering environmentalists
Cars drive through Stuttgart, one of the cities which has pushed for a city-wide diesel ban. Photo: DPA

The upper house confirmed a Bundestag (lower house) vote to henceforth deem 
“disproportionate” driving bans in cities that only slightly exceed air pollution limits.

In practice it will give cities above the European Union's upper limit of an annual average of 40 microgrammes of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) per cubic metre, but less than 50 microgrammes, flexibility to take other measures to reduce air pollution.

SEE ALSO: German government moves to head off city diesel bans

“Driving bans are a harsh medicine, and they are only proportionate if it is unlikely other measures will quickly mean the limits are respected,” junior environment minister Florian Pronold said Thursday.

Local authorities in Hamburg and Stuttgart have in recent months bowed to court orders for exclusion zones on older cars using the fuel in a bid to reduce pollution, with other cities including capital Berlin set to follow suit.

SEE ALSO: Stuttgart to bring in city-wide diesel ban at start of next year

Those rulings were based on the EU upper limit of 40 microgrammes of NO2.

Numerous German cities have NO2 levels above 50 microgrammes per cubic metre.

An environmentalist group that successfully sued for many of the diesel bans in heavily-polluted cities criticised the move.

“The EU… makes unmistakeably clear that the Europe-wide threshold is set at 40 microgrammes and must be met, with no ifs or buts,” Jürgen Resch, director of the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), said in a Thursday statement.

“Diesel bans are the last measure that is both possible and proportional to achieve clean air… however much the federal government may bristle at them,” he added.

On top of the looser threshold, lawmakers also exempted the newest diesels conforming to the “Euro 6” standard, as well as refitted older vehicles and municipal services like rubbish collection and buses from possible bans.

And they ordered that any exclusion zone should be enforced only with mobile spot checks, rather than dragnet-style data collection.

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

Nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants emitted by diesel vehicles have become a new headache for Germany's powerful car industry, which turned to the fuel to reduce output of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Especially since car giant Volkswagen's 2015 admission to manipulating 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide to appear less polluting, the manufacturers have been scrambling to catch up to foreign competitors in the race to build emissions-free electric vehicles.

But Berlin has faced accusations it is going too easy on the firms, fearing voter backlash if car industry jobs vanish or drivers' access to cities is restricted.

SEE ALSO: Court orders diesel bans on some Berlin streets

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Germany can jail officials who flout anti-pollution rulings, court says

Germany can jail officials for failing to enforce inner-city bans on polluting vehicles, but only under specific legislation that respects proportionality, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday.

Germany can jail officials who flout anti-pollution rulings, court says
Photo: DPA

It would be up to the German justice system to determine whether such politicians should face jail time, the court said, after being asked to rule on a long-standing dispute between environmental activists and the state government of Bavaria.

In a legal tug-of-war stretching back to 2012, environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) is attempting to force the Bavarian government to implement measures against air pollution in the state capital Munich.

Both activists and the judiciary have claimed the Bavarian government is flagrantly ignoring a 2014 Munich court decision demanding a plan of action to include a city ban for diesel-fuelled vehicles.

Thursday's ECJ opinion, though not legally binding, could have implications for leading politicians in the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats.

The ECJ said any jail sentence would require “a national legal basis which is sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable in its application”.

It added that such punishment must be “proportionate”.

READ ALSO: How German diesel bans have ignited a debate about dirty tricks and dodgy money

The court's advocate general had said in November that no such legal basis appeared to exist in Germany.

The Bavarian higher administrative court referred the case to the ECJ in November 2018, saying that “high-ranking political figures (had) made it clear, both publicly and to the court, that they would not fulfil their

Saying a €4,000 fine had proved “inefficient”, it asked the magistrates in Luxembourg to advise on the legality of threatening lawmakers with imprisonment.

In Thursday's ruling the ECJ recalled that the “referring court found that ordering the payment of financial penalties was not liable to result” in a change in conduct since the fine would be credited as income for Bavaria and thus “not result in any economic loss”.

It said incarceration should be a recourse “only where there are no less restrictive” measures such as stiffer, renewable fines whose payment “does not ultimately benefit the budget from which they are funded”.