German car sales plummet as new pollution rules bite

German car sales fell sharply in January, official data showed Wednesday, hit by the coming into force of new EU pollution rules which had triggered a buying frenzy in the final months of 2019.

German car sales plummet as new pollution rules bite
Drivers in Munich. Photo: DPA

A total of 246,300 new cars hit the road last month, down 7.3 percent year-on-year, the KBA transport authority said, the first decline in five months.

It comes after the later part of 2019 was marked by a flurry of sales as dealerships offered discounts to push more polluting models out the door before January 1st, 2020.

READ ALSO: Why has German car production hit a 22-year low?

“After the fireworks of the fourth quarter of 2019, comes the hangover,” said EY analyst Peter Fuss.

He expected the slump to drag on for months, “especially with vehicles that
have a high CO2 output” such as SUVs.

Under new European Union legislation that came into force this year, automakers must reach average CO2 emissions across their new vehicle fleets of below 95 grammes per kilometre, or face harsh fines.

The average CO2 output of new cars registered in Germany in January stood at 151.5 g/km, the KBA said, some 4.5 percent lower than in December.

The slightly smaller carbon footprint comes as customers increasingly opt for greener engines.

According to the KBA, electric car sales climbed 61 percent in January, while those of plug-in hybrids soared more than 300 percent.

But with around 7,500 electrics and 8,600 plug-in hybrids sold, they account for only a fraction of the market for now, totalling 6.5 percent.

READ ALSO: How Germany is preparing for the rise of the electric car

Fuss said he expected the trend to strengthen in the coming months as more electric models hit the market and climate awareness grows.

“Carmakers will be doing everything they can to significantly boost the sales of e-cars and plug-in hybrids — or else they risk fines and harm to their reputations,” he said.

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From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla’s giant Berlin car factory

In the green forest outside Berlin, a David and Goliath-style battle is playing out between electric carmaker Tesla and environmental campaigners who want to stop its planned "gigafactory".

From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla's giant Berlin car factory
Tesla's gigafactory outside the doors of Berlin. dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

“When I saw on TV that the Tesla factory was going to be built here, I couldn’t believe it,” said Steffen Schorch, driving his trusty German-made car.

The 60-year-old from Erkner village in the Berlin commuter belt has become one of the faces of the fight against the US auto giant’s first European factory, due to open in the Brandenburg region near Berlin in July.

“Tesla needs far too much water, and the region does not have this water,” said the environmental activist, a local representative of the Nabu ecologist campaign group.

Announced in November 2019, Tesla’s gigafactory project was warmly welcomed as an endorsement of the “Made in Germany” quality mark – but was immediately met with opposition from local residents.

Demonstrations, legal action, open letters – residents have done everything in their power to delay the project, supported by powerful
environmental campaign groups Nabu and Gruene Liga.

Tesla was forced to temporarily suspend forest clearing last year after campaigners won an injunction over threats to the habitats of resident lizards and snakes during their winter slumber.

READ MORE: Is Germany’s Volkswagen becoming ‘the new Tesla’ as it ramps up e-vehicle production?

And now they have focused their attention on water consumption – which could reach up to 3.6 million cubic metres a year, or around 30 percent of the region’s available supply, according to the ZDF public broadcaster.

The extra demand could place a huge burden on a region already affected by water shortages and hit by summer droughts for the past three years.

Local residents and environmentalists are also concerned about the impact on the wetlands, an important source of biodiversity in the region.

Tesla Street

“The water situation is bad, and will get worse,” Heiko Baschin, a spokesman for the neighbourhood association IG Freienbrink, told AFP.

Brandenburg’s environment minister Axel Vogel sought to play down the issue, saying in March that “capacity has not been exceeded for now”.

But the authorities admit that “the impact of droughts is significant” and have set up a working group to examine the issue in the long term.

The gigafactory is set to sprawl over 300 hectares – equivalent to approximately 560 football fields – southwest of the German capital.

Tesla is aiming to produce 500,000 electric vehicles a year at the plant, which will also be home to “the largest battery factory in the world”,
according to group boss Elon Musk.

In a little over a year and a half, swathes of coniferous forest have already been cleared to make way for vast concrete rectangles on a red earth base, accessed via the already iconic Tesla Strasse (Tesla Street).

German bureaucracy

The new site still has only provisional construction permits, but Tesla has been authorised by local officials to begin work at its own risk.

Final approval depends on an assessment of the project’s environmental impact – including the issue of water.

In theory, if approval is not granted, Tesla will have to dismantle the entire complex at its own expense.

But “pressure is being exerted (on the regulatory authorities), linked to Tesla’s significant investment”, Gruene Liga’s Michael Greschow told AFP.

In early April, Tesla said it was “irritated” by the slow pace of German bureaucracy, calling for exceptions to the rules for projects that help the environment.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier agreed in April that his government “had not done enough” to reduce bureaucracy, lauding the gigafactory as a “very important project”.

Despite Germany’s reputation for efficiency, major infrastructure projects are often held up by bureaucracy criticised as excessive by the business community.

Among the most embarrassing examples are Berlin’s new airport which opened last October after an eight-year delay and Stuttgart’s new train station, which has been under construction since 2010.

Brandenburg’s economy minister, Joerg Steinbach, raised the possibility in February that the Tesla factory could be delayed beyond its July planned opening for the same reason.

SEE ALSO: Tesla advertises over 300 jobs for new Gigafactory near Berlin