Speed limits and ‘home office’: How Germany could reduce its oil consumption

As Germany struggles with its dependence on Russian oil, environmental groups and climate-conscious politicians have proposed ways of reducing this while also protecting the climate.

Speed limits and 'home office': How Germany could reduce its oil consumption
A thermostat attached to a radiator displays the temperature. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Franziska Gabbert

Germany’s dependence on Russian energy supplies means it’s unlikely that the German government will be able to place a ban on oil imports like the one announced by the USA on Tuesday.

Both the Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) and Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) have also recently warned of grave consequences for Germany if such imports were to stop.

Russian oil imports are mainly processed in refineries into fuel and diesel, but are also used for heating and many German companies also use oil as a raw material and manufacturing lubricant.

READ ALSO: Russian energy imports ‘essential’ to Europeans’ lives, says German Chancellor

But another way around the issue could be to put in place measures that lead to reduction in oil consumption and for people to change their habits to conserve more energy. Here are some of the measures that have been proposed so far.

Driving speed limits

The controversial topic of introducing speed limits on the Autobahn is doing the rounds again, as both Greenpeace and the Environmental Action Germany have raised the issue again in the last week. They have claimed that a reduction in speed could save 3.7 billion litres of petrol and diesel, as well as 9.2 million tonnes of CO2.

They’re not only suggesting an introduction of a speed limit of 100 km/h on motorways, but also a reduction from 120 to 80 km/h on country roads and from 50 to 30 km/h inside towns for the duration of the current crisis.

Speed limit 100 is written on a traffic sign on a motorway on the border between the Netherlands and Germany. Phtoto: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

Turning down the heating

According to the International Energy Agency, heating German households by one degree less would have an enormous effect on the annual demand for energy.

The Director of German think-tank Agora Energiewende, has stated that, if people lower their heating by 1-2 degrees, they can reduce the energy consumption in their household by at least 10-15 percent and, if they turning the radiators down when out of the room could save six percent of household energy demand.

Taking simple measures like this, and wearing warmer clothes could add up to a big impact on Germany’s overall energy consumption.

READ ALSO: How people in Germany can support Ukraine

Driving more carefully

The ADAC automobile association also recently pointed out that driving behaviours can also help lower fuel consumption and has listed useful tips on their website.

“Drivers can easily save up to 20 percent fuel by driving with foresight and not aggressively, by avoiding unnecessary short trips, power consumption (heating, cooling), and by driving with energy-saving tyres and optimal tyre pressure.

This behaviour could certainly reduce the annual fuel consumption of 52 billion litres in Germany by several billion litres, they have said.

Car-free Sundays

An archive photo from 1973 shows the view of the empty Duisburg-Kaiserberg motorway junction during the second Sunday driving ban due to the oil crisis. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Horst_Ossinger

The energy policy spokesperson of the SPD parliamentary group, Nina Scheer, has brought up a concept which was first implemented in Germany during the oil crisis in 1973.

So-called car-free Sundays (Autofreie Sonntage) she said “have not harmed us in the past and could also make a contribution today if a corresponding shortage requires it”.

At the time, the government of Willy Brandt put in place four car-free Sundays, and Germans were banned from driving without a special allowance.

READ ALSO: Germany considers how to ease surging energy costs

Working from home

Another proposal put forward by Greenpeace is the continuation of the working from home model which has taken off during the pandemic, as many people in Germany travel to work by car.  

According to their forecast, if 40 percent of workers continued to work from home on two additional weekdays (compared to the pre-Covid level), this would save 1.6 million tonnes of fuel per year.

Would there be support in Germany for these kinds of measures?

The jury is still out on that. As Germany is such a car-loving country, speed limits or car-free Sundays would likely be difficult. 

But environmental group Greenpeace said in due to the war in Ukraine, people may ready to try these kinds of steps.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany could end its dependence on Russian energy

Asked if these kinds of measures are likely gain support from people in Germany, a spokesperson for Greenpeace told The Local: “Proposals such as a renunciation of leisure travel by car or more cycling on short distances, rely on the support of the population.

“In view of the broad solidarity with the people in Ukraine and the great rejection of Putin’s war of aggression, society is overwhelmingly ready for such steps.”

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Russia using energy ‘as weapon’, says Berlin

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck accused Russia on Thursday of using energy as "a weapon", after Moscow announced sanctions on Western energy firms and a key pipeline again saw lower gas deliveries to Europe.

Russia using energy 'as weapon', says Berlin

“It has to be said that the situation is coming to a head, in such a way that the use of energy as a weapon is now being realised in several areas,” Habeck told a press conference.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, on a visit to the German capital, said Moscow had shown itself to be an unreliable supplier.

Kuleba urged Europe to end its heavy dependence on Russian gas that was helping to finance Moscow’s war machine.

“This energy oxygen for Russia must be turned off and that is especially important for Europe,” Kuleba said at a joint press conference with Habeck.

“Europe must get rid of this complete dependence on Russian gas, since Russia has shown… that it is not a reliable partner and Europe cannot afford that.”

Russia on Thursday said it would stop sending natural gas via the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline as part of retaliation for Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

The move comes a day after Russia issued a government decree imposing sanctions on 31 EU, US and Singaporean energy firms.

Most of the companies belong to the Gazprom Germania group of subsidiaries of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The sanctions include a ban on transactions and the entry into Russian ports of vessels linked to the affected companies.

Meanwhile, operators on Thursday reported a drop in gas supplies from Russia via Ukraine for a second day, after Kyiv said it would suspend flows through a key eastern transit pipeline called Sokhranivka because the area wasno longer under Ukrainian control.

But Gazprom has denied there was a case for the Ukrainian side to declare “force majeure” and said it was impossible to reroute all the supplies through another Ukrainian pipeline.

‘Blackmail’ fears

Gazprom told the Interfax news agency that supplies transiting Ukraine on Thursday were at 50.6 million cubic metres in total, compared to 72 million cubic metres the day before.

Germany, which is hugely reliant on Russian energy, said it had been able to make up the shortfall through gas imports from Norway and the Netherlands.

The head of Germany’s Federal Network Agency, Klaus Mueller, also noted that Russia had been very “surgical” about its pick on which companies to sanction, selecting only storage and trading companies, and “not the operators”.

This “very well-planned, precise decree allows it to keep doing business with Germany, but not on old contract conditions”, rather under new conditions that other gas dealers would then have to conclude with Russia, said Mueller.

Europe’s biggest economy is racing to wean itself off Russian energy and has already almost completely phased out Russian coal.

But ditching Russian oil and gas will be more difficult.

With fears growing that Russia could abruptly turn off the energy taps, Habeck said Germany was focusing on building up gas reserves to prepare for winter.

“The gas storage facilities must be full by winter or else we will be in a situation where we can easily be blackmailed,” he warned.

READ ALSO: Russian gas transit halt in Ukraine hits key pipeline’s inflow in Germany