Transport Transition

Think Tank Spells Trouble for Carmakers

PUTNEY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 10: Exhaust fumes from a car in Putney High Street on January 10, 2013 in Putney, England. Local media are reporting local environmental campaigners claims that levels of traffic pollutants, mostly nitrogen dioxide, have breached upper safe limits in the busy street in south west London. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Could car fumes soon be a thing of the past?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s automakers have been slow to invest in low-carbon technology such as electric cars, despite the government’s huge shift away from fossil fuels. This has left them exposed.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • As part of its energy transition, Germany’s government wants to have 1 million e-cars on the road by 2020.
    • Agora Verkehrswende wants to bring about the “decarbonization of the transportation sector.”
    • Dieter Zetsche, head of carmaker Daimler, has advised “investing massively in this technology.”
  • Audio

    Audio

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Hackescher Markt is one of the busiest places in central Berlin.

Tourists gather here to explore the nearby courtyards, narrow streets, galleries and museums. Every day thousands of people also commute through its busy transport hub, while there are also cyclists and those trying to get through the bottleneck of Berlin’s city center with a car.

The hotspot in the German capital is going to be the focus of a new project to be launched on July 1. It’s a project that could pose a threat to the car industry: A fast transportation transition.

The change in the paradigm of German mobility is being pushed by two organizations based in the area.

“Our goal is that the next federal government will set a course for the decarbonization of the transportation sector.”

Christian Hochfeld, Executive Director, Agora Verkehrswende

They are the European Climate Foundation, which is backed by several organisations, including those of the Hewlett and Packard family, and the Stiftung Mercator, a private foundation belonging to the Schmidt-Ruthenbeck family, which owns 16 percent of the German retail giant Metro.

The Stiftung Mercator has assets amounting to over €100 million (or about $112 million). The family is secretive and doesn’t publicly speak about its environmental motivations.

The foundations have found a prominent figurehead, Achim Steiner, to help it achieve the goal of cutting CO2 from the transportation sector. Mr. Steiner, whose term as executive director of the United Nations Environment Program expires in June, will become chairman of the advisory board of Agora Verkehrswende, which calls for a technological revolution. The new think tank is an “offer for politics, industry and society,” Mr. Steiner said.

That will make German industry sit up and take notice because it is already well acquainted with Agora Energiewende, another joint project of the Stiftung Mercator and European Climate Foundation.

There is hardly another organization that has had such an influence on the timetable of the energy transition. Many ideas put forward by Agora quickly become the policy of the German economics ministry, which also bears responsibility for energy policy.

The think tank and German government have close ties. Rainer Baake, the junior economics minister responsible for energy policy, had previously been in charge of the think tank and remains on the advisory board. And the head of Agora Energiewende’s board is Mr. Steiner’s predecessor at the United Nations, Klaus Töpfer, a former German environment minister.

The industry’s view of the matter is a mixture of recognition and resignation.

15 Energy-guzzling Cars-01

“The Agora people want a better world. Nothing can be said against that. But in turn they accept massive collateral damage,” complains an energy manager whose company was hard hit by the energy transition. Some say the shift away from nuclear energy and coal to solar, hydro, and wind robbed companies like RWE and E.ON of large parts of their commercial base, destabilizing them.

“We noticed with Agora Energiewende’s success that we can achieve something,” said Christian Hochfeld, the director responsible for the new project.

He has €5 million available for the first three years to influence political opinion in favor of the switchover.

“Our goal is that the next federal government will set a course for the decarbonization of the transportation sector,” he said. “This includes developing a strategy for how, with just a few exceptions, new cars sold in about 20 years will be electric.”

Mr. Baake, the minister responsible for energy policy, is even more specific. He recently said, “If we achieve our goal, we won’t be permitted to issue a license for any car with a combustion engine after 2030.”

Mr. Baake is a member of the Green party, which regards the transportation transition as a key issue along with the energy and agrarian transition.

“The transportation transition must play a key role for the next German federal government,” said the Green Party parliamentary leader, Anton Hofreiter. “Since a sustainable mobility policy is vital for climate protection and, at the same time, an important driver of innovation and pacesetter for the automobile industry and the transport sector.”

The Greens plan to hold a party conference on the transport transition in the fall, which will focus on boosting innovation.

Agora already has plans similar to those of the Greens. For example, it wants to see the state doing more to promote the electrification of passenger transport – beyond the buyer’s premium for e-cars. Freight transport should be driven by alternative fuels such as electricity, gas and hydrogen. Local transport and car sharing in the cities should be expanded. And they propose a clear phase-out plan for when fossil-fuel energy sources will no longer be allowed.

At the same time, renewable energy sources and the electricity grids must be massively expanded, which Mr. Hochfeld wants to finance through a “levy on the price of gas.”

Germany’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, a Social Democrat, is open to considering these suggestions. She had already welcomed Agora Energiewende’s phase-out plan for coal and had noted similar measures for the transportation sector in her climate plan. She is supported by junior minister Jochen Flasbarth, former head of Germany’s Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union. Mr. Flasbarth will be among the guests at Agora’s opening celebration on July 1.

That doesn’t bode well for Audi, BMW, Volkswagen and the others.

Agora wants to launch the “restructuring of the industrial base,” but how it will be done remains to be seen. Upheavals, as in the energy sector, are to be expected, since the carmakers are still earning their money with combustion engines and not e-mobility.

The head of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, told Handelsblatt that it is merely “speculation” to say when exactly e-cars will become competitive. At the same time, he advises “investing massively in this technology.” Mr. Zetsche was certain that these cars will be produced in Germany, as well as the batteries to power them.

Agora wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Klaus Stratmann covers the energy market. To contact the authors: delhaes@handelsblatt.com and stratmann@handelsblatt.com

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