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Very few are aware that Berlin’s got a serious problem: some of the worst air pollution in Western Europe, caused by emissions from cars. What is the city doing about it? Surprisingly little.
Step outside and inhale. “Ach, the famed Berliner Luft...” The Berlin air – a synonym for the sense of freedom and everything else we cherish about the city. You stroll home down a wide, tree-lined boulevard where red and orange leaves carpet the pavement. Cyclists are all around. Some pedestrians dash through the evening’s light fog. One block away, cars idle at an intersection, pumping noxious fumes into the atmosphere.
Believe it or not, Berlin’s beloved Luft is filthy. Currently 25,000 delegates from 190 countries are meeting in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) to discuss climate change and hopefully come to an agreement on how to address air pollution. Berlin hosted the first COP in 1995 and helped kick-start initiatives of greener practice. Twenty years on, the city’s plight to improve air quality has been a tale of good intentions and non-execution.
How bad is Berlin’s air? On any given day, according to European air quality monitoring project CITEAIR, it’s among the worst in Western Europe. The German capital’s pollution levels routinely top 100 (very high) while cities like Paris and London rarely go over 70. The main pollutant responsible for these troublesome readings is NO2: a toxic gas emitted from motor vehicles, particularly those with diesel engines. According to the European Environment Agency, the gas is especially hazardous to children, elderly people and those with chronic illnesses such as emphysema and asthma.
Figures released by the Umweltbundesamt (UBA), Germany’s central environmental authority, show that the capital had one of the highest concentration levels of NO2 in the country last year, surpassed only by a handful of cities such as Stuttgart and Cologne. The worst readings were at Charlottenburg’s Hardenbergplatz (near Bahnhof Zoo) and Neukölln’s Silbersteinstraße and Karl-Marx-Straße.
Martin Lutz, the man in charge of air quality at the Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Planning and the Environment, has an intricate understanding of the city’s battle against pollution. He’s quick to point the finger at external factors. Sixty-four percent of particle matter pollution (PM10), for example, comes from our neighbours to the east. “Poland is still able to operate old power plants until 2017, all of which are exempt from more stringent EU emission values. If we have easterly winds, then particle pollution is transported over into Germany.” Still, “NO2 is the most pressing problem we’re facing at the moment,” Lutz acknowledges. “And yes, it’s largely caused by traffic.”
With only about 350 vehicles per 1000 residents, Berlin’s car density is low compared to the German average of nearly 600 per 1000. In the last 10 years, the number of registered cars in Berlin dropped from 1.21 million to 1.15 million. Meanwhile, trips made by bike have increased by 51 percent between 2001-2014, and between 2012 and 2013 alone, trips taken on the BVG rose by 26 million.
Yet motorised traffic is still on the rise. Between 2006-2012, the number of cars driving in the city increased from 1.21 million to 1.35 million. One explanation for this is that many of the vehicles cruising Berlin’s streets are driven by commuters from Brandenburg or visitors from other parts of the country. Or simply that Berlin drivers are using their cars more on average. What has Berlin done to keep Berliners away from their polluting machines?
Tops and flops
“We were the first city daring enough to implement an LEZ. It was the most ambitious concept in Germany, or even in Europe. You cannot repeat these kind of success stories. It’s impossible,” says Lutz. He’s referring to the ‘low emissions zone’ introduced in 2008. This restricts cars with high emissions from entering the area within the S-Bahn ring. All diesel engines had to be registered, and the older ones had to be retrofit with particle filters in order to receive a sticker that confirmed they met basic standards. Arne Fellermann of the Association for the Environment and Nature Conservation in Germany (BUND) called it “the prime example” of how to implement an LEZ.
The city has since expanded this zone to include even higher standards for diesel and petrol cars, which must display a €5 green registration sticker or else face an €80 fine. They’ve also released a study that projected the LEZ would decrease NO2 levels by about four percent annually. Has it? The UBA data shows no decisive change.
Berlin once set the standard in terms of anti-pollution initiatives. “Berlin’s proposal was one of the best in Europe,” insists Fellermann. He’s referring to Berlin’s Air Quality Plan 2011-2017, a 200-page document laying out the city’s goals for innovative initiatives, extended metro lines, and implementation of particle filter systems on buses and boats. The proposal was so exceptional that it earned Berlin the top spot on Soot Free, a list of 17 (now 23) major European cities graded and ranked on their policies to combat air pollution.
By 2015, however, Berlin had dropped from first place to fifth. “We realized that, due to budget cuts, some of Berlin’s initiatives in their Air Quality Plan were not going to be introduced as they’d intended,” says Fellerman. Meanwhile, cities like Zurich (number one on the Soot Free list) and Copenhagen (number two) took big steps against pollution, and Paris and London rose in the rankings thanks to measures like London’s congestion charge of £11.50 per day per car and Paris’ “car free” day.
Where Copenhagen received top marks for promoting walking and cycling, Berlin received a null score for failing to build sufficient infrastructure to meet the city’s increasing demand. (In March of this year Berlin did increase the cycling budget to €4m for lanes and €2m for maintenance, but this was too late to be considered in Soot Free’s ranking.) An initiative to promote filter systems for the outdated passenger boats on the Spree also flopped. The filters were subsidised but not mandatory, and the bureaucracy involved was so severe that none of the boat operators opted in. Boat emissions make up just a fraction of overall pollution, but the inability to support even this initiative illustrates Berlin’s shortcomings. “It was a little disappointing,” Lutz admits.
Ultimately, when pressed about Berlin’s failure to tackle pollution, Lutz recalls the usual excuse: Berlin’s chronic financial constraints. “In terms of per capita debt here in Berlin we’re on the same level as Greece,” he says. As for Soot Free’s downgrade: “You can’t be at the front on all fields of activity. It would be very ambitious to expect we’d be ranked number one again.”
Previous initiatives all over the world have proven the direct benefit of decreased traffic. When London introduced its congestion charge zone in 2003, car traffic decreased by 15 percent, which lowered NO2 levels by 7 percent. It’s simple: less traffic means cleaner air. And cycling and public transit are only a small part of the solution: Many people own both a car and a bike. Some Berliners will never pick up a bike. And as long as we have these pollution levels, more bike lanes will just mean more opportunities for cyclists to breathe in noxious gases. Similarly, the increase in public transit use hasn’t decreased car traffic.
“The recipe is clear,” says Heiko Balsmeyer, coordinator of the Europe-wide coalition Clean Air Project. “You have to decrease motorised traffic in cities. That has to be done in Berlin and our impression is that the population is ready for this transformation, but the political will and a brave administration is lacking.”
“The current government thinks that the first thing that has to function is traffic flow, everything else follows,” quips Green politician Silke Gebel. “It hinges on whether you believe the city is for cars or for its inhabitants.” In October, in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the Bundestag announced it wouldn’t be following in France’s footsteps and considering a tax increase on diesel vehicles.
Add to that the highly controversial extension of the A100 Autobahn through Neukölln and Treptow, supposed to open in 2022. “The motorway itself won’t increase pollution,” claims Lutz. “There will be emissions, but at the moment traffic flows through parts of the city with flats on either side, where people walk and cycle. We hope that the A100 calms traffic and drops pollution in these residential areas.”
“If you expand streets, you create more traffic. The continuous building of car infrastructure in an already well-connected country like Germany depicts the priority put on road transport here,” says Gebel. “We want car traffic to flow smoothly – less stop-and-start driving reduces pollution – however, we have to make other forms of mobility attractive.” For example, why are pedestrian zones so few and far between in Berlin? Instead, the city has come up with the strange concept of forced car-free “Encounters Zones” and even Spielstraßen (“play streets”), where kids have to share space with cars. “I wouldn’t let my kids play on them,” says Gebel.
“Don’t touch the car industry,” remarks Lutz sardonically. “That’s the overarching motto, isn’t it?” Germany’s favourite car company Volkswagen enjoys a market share of 37 percent here, and the company’s huge programme of cheating on diesel emissions uncovered by US authorities cannot have helped Berlin’s pollution results. Ultimately, are German mentalities and policies steered by the motor industry? “Of course it’s strong. However, we’re now at a decisive moment because nobody would dare to defend VW here. It was wrong, it needs to be regulated quickly and that’s a job for the federal government,” asserts Lutz.
What’s most vexing is how few people realise just how polluted Berlin’s air is. Despite its self-proclaimed good intentions, the city government has failed to inform its citizens of the problem. Fellermann points out this issue isn’t unique to Berlin. “Who is really aware of the dangers from urban air quality?” he says. “Only a couple of cities might have more awareness, like London, Paris, or Stuttgart. It would take a larger public campaign to tip the city to become more active. Possibly in the coming years this will become a larger campaigning issue again.”
For that to happen, Berlin’s policymakers themselves should be more informed. “I’m a bit surprised to hear that we are one of the worst places in Europe. I don’t think so…” says Lutz, the man heading up Berlin’s air quality programme. “The air could be better in Berlin, but I do think we’re better off than in cities like London and Paris.” Lutz must have different data!
Balsmeyer of the Clean Air Project points to a frustrating disconnect between the dirty reality, the well-meaning words and lack of meaningful actions: “Look at our leaders. Look at our mayor or our ministers. Have you ever seen them on a bike? In Copenhagen ministers go by bike to governmental meetings. Have you ever seen that in Germany? German politicians are living in the past.”
It might take years before politicians summon the courage to tackle the car problem. In the end, it’s up to Berliners to do something about our dirty Berliner Luft – by walking, biking, taking the train and leaving the car at home.
Originally published in issue #143, November 2015.