Opinion

Let Diesel Die a Natural Death

Tesla Model 3
Public enemy number one in the eyes of the German car industry. Source: dpa

Germany has a new hot topic: diesel fuel and nitrous oxides. Until recently, diesel technology was championed as environmentally friendly and subsidized by the state. Now, following the Dieselgate emissions scandal and allegations of collusion among German automakers, it’s suddenly on the country’s hit list.

Many people are using this about-turn as an opportunity to attack internal combustion engines in general. Germany’s Green Party, for example, says all fossil-fueled engines should be a thing of the past by 2030.

Demands like this are a broadside against Germany’s leading industry and puts many jobs at risk. According to a recent study by the Ifo Institute, some 620,000 jobs are directly tied to the fate of the internal combustion engine.

The right way forward does not include guidelines for the automobile industry, but rather free competition.

It goes without saying that reducing emissions as much as possible is an indisputable goal; it is in the best interests of man and planet. Much has already been done in this area. Nitrous oxide emissions from the transportation sector fell by 63 percent between 1995 and 2015, despite a sharp rise in traffic volumes. There have also been notable achievements in reducing emissions of fine particles, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and greenhouse gases.

This strategy must continue. Measures agreed with the automobile industry that aim to reduce or maintain nitrous oxide levels take this into account. They are right and necessary. However, it is also a fact that reducing Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions enough to reach its ambitious climate targets leaves us with no alternative to diesel engines in the foreseeable future.

Blanket driving bans are not a solution. The owners of diesel vehicles were compliant with the applicable standards when they bought their cars, making any prohibition of diesel cars unfair. Also, trade and industry also depend flexible means of transportation. Given all the subcontractors and customers who would be affected, driving bans in cities would hit commerce twice over.

The participants of this month’s “diesel summit” between government and industry are right to advocate other measures. For one thing, alternative propulsion methods must be explored and fostered through tax-funded research programs. But economic intervention or coercion by the state won’t help.

Despite numerous incentives for buyers, Germany is far from the government’s goal of having 1 million electric cars on the road by 2020. Currently, there are fewer than 100,000. The reasons are well known – short ranges and low flexibility compared to internal combustion engines, poor recharging infrastructure, a comparatively high purchase price and uncertain resale value. A quota cannot overcome buyers’ doubts and hesitations. When these disadvantages diminish, demand will increase.

The current debate over diesel masks the fact that incessant, cherry-picking intervention will not produce the desired results, neither in terms of energy consumption nor climate protection. The starting point for all further considerations must be a coherent energy policy, which can then be the basis for climate protection policy. A part of this concept must clarify how electricity requirements – including those caused by increased e-mobility – can be met reliably, affordably, and in an environmentally friendly manner. Electric cars that have been “fueled up” with electricity derived from coal, which still makes up 40 percent of German electricity production, are certainly not the solution.

Other ways to cut emissions must also be considered – including the reduction of energy-use by buildings through retrofitting modern heating and air conditioning systems – rather than focusing solely on the automobile. And we need honest and comprehensive calculations that don’t ignore the environmental problems associated with battery production.

Only when enough progress has been made toward climate-friendly energy production, battery technology, and electric-mobility infrastructure can the internal combustion engine – and thus, also diesel – be replaced.

Politics cannot determine whether this will happen in the next few years or in decades. The right way forward does not include guidelines for the automobile industry, but rather free competition and a change of consciousness in society – as well as a holistic and dispassionate approach to energy and climate protection.

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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