Although you wouldn’t know it from riding your bike down car-clogged, fume-shrouded Leipziger Straße or Sonnenallee or Torstraße, Germany is amid an Autokrise or “car crisis”. In the 1970s the Oil Crisis meant the we had too little oil. In this crisis, it’s the exact opposite: we have way too many cars on our city streets.
It all bubbled to the surface last week. It’s pretty complicated, but here are the main things that happened:
1. Corrupt cartel: Last week Der Spiegel revealed that the big German cars brands had been meeting secretly as a cartel for years to discuss, among other things, how to cheat during emissions testing using fancy software. A juicy twist in the ongoing “Dieselgate” affair that began in September 2015 when the American EPA found that Volkswagen had been violating the US Clean Air Act on a massive scale. Now it’s almost certain that all of the German carmarkers were doing the same thing.
2. Diesel ban: Also last week, a court ruled that older diesel models would be banned from driving in Stuttgart (Germany’s car capital, home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche) where diesel-related air pollution is reaching untenable levels. In a case brought on by the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the judge found that the right to human health trumped the rights of diesel drivers to pollute the air. Deutsche Umwelthilfe has filed similar cases in several other German cities,
3. Recalls: Porsche, the luxury sports car maker from Stuttgart, has been banned from selling certain models of its Cayenne diesel SUVs, those 2.5 tonne luxury tanks popular with the one percent. At the same time, 21,500 Cayennes are being recalled across Europe. Why? Because they don’t comply with emmissions standards. VW and Audi are also being forced to recall hundreds of thousands of cars.
4. Fines: Since September 2015 when Dieselgate broke in the US, Volkswagen has been faced with new fines and lawsuits in countries around the world on almost a weekly basis. And Tuesday yet another VW scandal broke: the company may have used European research and development funds to develop their emissions-cheating engines.
What does it all mean? The events of the last two weeks show once and for all that the German car industry’s solution for climate change, “clean diesel”, is a scam. Diesel engines emit less carbon dioxide than petrol engines. Diesel motors employ a 100-year-old technology, are very easy to build and therefore extremely profitable. Yet they also produce large quantities of toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) causing smog and serious lung and heart problems. According to the European Environment Agency NOx is responsible for about 10,000 premature deaths per year in Germany. After years of promoting diesel as cheap and environmentally friendly, Germany now has 15 million diesel cars on the road and the result is a full-blown health-crisis.
On Wednesday, the government met auto-industry bosses at the so-called National Diesel Summit to solve the diesel pollution problem. The result was lacklustre: Five million diesel cars are going to get a software update that will reduce NOx emissions by about third. The update will be “voluntary” on the part of drivers. The procedure will cost €50 per car, which the execs generously offered to cover, rather than beg for a government subsidy. In reality, though, the software option was a way to avoid a much more effective mechanical solution, which would have had an actual positive effect on air quality but at €1500 per car, would have caused quite a chink in corporate profits.
And another thing: You’d think that in a democracy representatives of other groups affected by the scandal would have been present at the summit: associations representing drivers, health experts and environmental groups. Nope. Just politicians and industry reps.
At the press conference afterwards, there was some chatter by the Environment Minster Barbara Hendricks about alternative engines: hybrids, electric and so on, but everyone present agreed: diesel was a “bridge technology” on the way to a clean future. Germany wants to postpone that clean future for as long as possible. While France and Britain have named 2040 as the year no new diesel or petrol cars are sold, Germany, the country that makes the most cars in Europe, refuses to set such a target.
What’s also pathetic is that nobody in the government is discussing the real solution to urban mobility and urban pollution: car sharing, massive investment in public transport and cycle infrastructure.
The Red-Red-Green government of Berlin, a city with no car-related industry to speak of and therefore, one would think, relatively free of lobbyist influence, should seize this opportunity to go above and beyond election promises and show that we can make the roads safer and cleaner for all Berliners. Mayor Michael Müller should double spending in bike lanes, and put serious money into the BVG and S-Bahn, adding more trains, lowering fares and making buses, trams and trains safer and cleaner. If not now, when?