EU, not Berlin, to protect Germany from diesel exhaust

Demo gegen Luftverschmutzung in Brüssel
Only German politicians and carmakers disagree. Source: DPA

The monkey story won’t have helped.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks traveled to Brussels on Tuesday to ask the EU Commission for more time to reduce pollution levels just as VW and Daimler are reeling from reports about them sponsoring tests that exposed monkeys and humans to toxic diesel fumes. The problem, apart from the ethical issues of forcing living beings to inhale toxic fumes, is that people across Germany and much of Europe are forced, every day, to take part in experiments on the deleterious effects of air pollution.

EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella gave ministers from Germany, France, the UK and six other polluting member states until the end of next week to come up with solutions to air pollution that the European Environment Agency says causes more than 400,000 premature deaths per year. “In the face of such outstanding failures to take serious action and in view that the ongoing legal process will continue, I urge all member states to address this life threatening problem with the urgency it deserves,” Mr. Vella told a press conference.

Measurements last year showed 57 percent of air testing stations in German cities recorded nitrogen dioxide levels exceeding the EU’s limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. Diesel engines are the main source of this gas, which is harmful to human health and the environment. Still, nitrogen dioxide levels in all affected cities fell last year, albeit only slightly. The number of cities exceeding the EU’s limit also fell to 70 last year from 90, she said.

Belgium EU Germany Environment
And the smiles ended there. Source: AP

Ms. Hendricks couldn’t present any new pollution-cutting measures that go beyond the steps announced last year. The measures include a pledge by automakers to cut noxious diesel emissions by updating the engine software in more than 5 million cars. The manufacturers also agreed to offer purchase subsidies to encourage people to buy new and cleaner cars. In addition, cities are to receive €1 billion ($1.24 billion) to switch to electric buses and use technology to combat traffic congestion.

The EU has run out of patience and Ms. Hendricks wasn’t optimistic. “I think it is quite possible that the EU will take legal action,” she said. Mr. Vella has already made clear that he regards Germany’s action plans as insufficient to achieve the required improvement in air quality.

Ms. Hendricks, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), wants automakers to go further than software updates and says engine refits are needed to achieve bigger emissions reductions, but that’s more expensive and companies are opposed to it. Berlin may force automakers to alter engines, though a decision is weeks off. The move won’t come quick enough to avert legal action. “We have seen quite a lot — from fraudulent software via cartel collusion right up to this unethical testing,” she said. “No one seeking to deliberately damage the auto industry could cause as much damage as they have done themselves.”

Environmental groups said EU legal action was overdue. “Barbara Hendricks has gone to Brussels without an answer to Germany’s pollution problems,” said Greenpeace transport expert Benjamin Stephan. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD, currently locked in talks to form a government more than four months after the September 24 election, want to avoid driving bans at all costs.

At a hearing on Februray 22, the Federal Administrative court in Leipzig will consider whether driving bans for diesel cars are an appropriate means to fight pollution after a lower court in Stuttgart, home to auto giant Daimler, ruled last July that city authorities had the right to impose them. If the Leipzig court upholds the ruling, at least 10 German cities may have to ban older diesel cars this year, according to research by the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Till Hoppe is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Silke Kersting covers environmental policy for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors:

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