What German carmakers thought could never happen just did: A court ruling on Friday has paved the way for diesel cars to be banned in Stuttgart, dealing a blow to a key pillar of the country’s auto industry.
Activists from the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe cheered inside the Stuttgart administrative court room when the judge announced his decision to put people’s health above the car industry’s vested interests. In 2015, the lobby group had sued the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Stuttgart is located, demanding that the city implement diesel bans to reduce air pollution. The ruling could set a precedent for at least 14 other cities also being sued by the organization.
Diesel cars have come under intensive scrutiny for their nitrogen oxide emissions, after Volkswagen was revealed almost two years ago to have rigged cars with emissions-cheating software. Nitrogen oxide is a pollutant that can cause respiratory disease.
The Stuttgart case focused on whether Baden-Württemberg had adequate measures to lower emissions in the city, which is situated in a basin that regularly exceeds European Union air pollution limits. Wolfgang Kern, the presiding judge at the Stuttgart court, said diesel driving bans were the only adequate solution to quickly clean up the city’s air. And the bans, he argued, shouldn’t only be on days with high emissions, but rather applied on a longer-term basis. He recommended preventing diesel cars with certain categories of older diesel engines from entering much of Stuttgart’s center as early as January.
Automakers, the federal government and some German states have sought to avoid such bans by pursuing recalls to improve emissions, an idea shot down by the judge who referred to retrofits as “ineffective.” Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt called the decision for a diesel ban politically “wrong” and “unfair to those who own diesel cars.” Criticized by many environmental activists for being too cozy with the car industry, the minister was forced yesterday to order a recall of 20,000 Porsche Cayenne sports utility vehicles and ban new registrations after the luxury carmaker found problems with control systems during an internal investigation.
Mr. Dobrindt, who has referred to diesel as a “transition technology,” said the driving ban would be one of several issues discussed at the August 2 “diesel summit” at which representatives of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, regional governments and carmakers will discuss ways to tackle diesel pollution.
“Driving bans are fundamentally not a solution,” Joerg Howe, Daimler’s communications chief, said in a statement. A ban in major urban centers would be yet another slap in the face for German carmakers stung by the Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal and the more recent cartel allegations.
Germany is home to three of the world’s biggest carmakers in Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW, which have invested heavily in diesel technology. Diesel sales accounted for up to 73 percent of their European vehicle sales last year but have dropped by 9.1 percent in Germany in the first six months of this year. In Stuttgart and Munich, where driving bans could soon be in place, diesel sales have plunged by as much as 20 percent.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org