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German Court Rules Cities Can Ban Vehicles to Tackle Air Pollution

But Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental and consumer rights organization that set the legal action in motion, cheered the ruling as a clear victory for residents of dozens of German cities who are suffering from respiratory and other health problems caused by air pollution.

“The days of flooding the inner cities with poisonous diesel emissions are over,” said Jürgen Resch, managing director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe. “These vehicles have no place in our cities anymore.”

Frustrated with the lack of progress in improving air quality in about 70 of the country’s most polluted cities, the group brought lawsuits against several local governments, demanding that they uphold the air quality standards set by the European Union. In some instances, cities found that the only way to ensure those standards were met involved banning certain vehicles — mostly older diesel models — from city streets.

Mr. Resch said he expected the first bans to be enacted in the fall in German cities where pollution levels are highest. Those cities include Stuttgart, home to Porsche and Mercedes, as well as Düsseldorf, both of which were directly involved in the case.

“Limited bans for certain diesel cars are within with the law,” the court said in its ruling, as one way to allow cities to meet the limits on the emissions of nitrogen oxide established by the European Union in 2010.

The court further found that when emissions exceeded the allowed limits, banning all vehicles with diesel motors older than those approved in 2014 and gasoline-burning engines older than those approved in 2001 was the only way for the municipal authorities to ensure air quality.

In 2016, a lower court in Stuttgart ruled in favor of Deutsche Umwelthilfe’s argument that the only way to effectively reduce nitrogen oxide levels in urban areas was to keep off the streets those vehicles responsible for the pollution, most of them diesels.


Activists outside the court in Leipzig, Germany, on Thursday. The case pit environmental campaigners against the powerful auto industry. Credit Sebastian Willnow/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the state of Baden-Württemberg challenged the lower court’s ruling, and a court in North Rhine-Westphalia urged a higher court to weigh in, arguing that only the federal government had the right to enforce the European Union standards.

The ruling allowing such bans — already popular among Germany’s European neighbors — could open the floodgates, allowing for a raft of new measures in other cities across the country. But resistance to steps that curb drivers’ rights in Germany remains deeply rooted. Diesel technology was developed in the country, and it accounts for many of the 800,000 jobs in the German auto industry.

Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor who runs an automotive research center at the University of Duisburg-Essen, warned the Germans who drive older diesel cars not to try to sell them, as the ruling was certain to send prices plunging. He criticized the government and auto industry for failing to take the problem of diesel emissions seriously enough when they met in Berlin in August.

“Car and policymakers now need to put their heads together and finally come up with a solution for how we are going to get out of this mess,” Mr. Dudenhöffer said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has been under pressure for years to take a stronger stance against the powerful auto industry, tried to soothe the concerns of diesel owners. “It is only pertains to certain cities in which there is more negotiating to be done,” the chancellor said after the ruling. “But it certainly does not affect all of Germany and every person in the country who owns a vehicle.”

Municipal groups have warned that allowing bans could be fatal for inner cities, where delivery, repair and emergency workers, as well as many residents, rely on diesel-fired vehicles.

Diesel was sold for decades as a cleaner alternative to gas-fired engines on the argument that diesel cars were better for the environment because they burn fuel more efficiently and emit less carbon dioxide.

But in 2015, the United States authorities revealed that Volkswagen had duped consumers by rigging its vehicles to pass emissions tests: Software cut emissions during tests in a controlled environment but turned off under normal driving conditions.

Since then, the scandal has widened, most recently through revelations of a study in which VW forced monkeys to inhale fumes from a Beetle in an effort to prove they were not harmful.

At the meeting in August, the German government ordered all carmakers to fix the problem, and they responded by proposing software that would keep emissions at laboratory levels while driving on the open road. But environmental groups have argued that these have failed to sufficiently reduce pollution.

An alternative would be to retrofit some older vehicles, at a cost of 1,400 to 3,300 euros ($ 1,725 to $ 4,060), cutting diesel pollution by as much as 70 percent, according to Germany’s auto safety group, ADAC.

Customers are already turning away from diesel technology. The latest figures show a drop of more than 17 percent in the number of diesel-burning cars registered in January compared with December. The figures reflect a trend established in the previous year, and the authorities fear they indicate a threat to the industry.

Like Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, Munich is also considering a ban. They would join European cities including Madrid and Athens, which have said they will ban all diesel vehicles by 2025. Britain and France have also said they want to end domestic sales of new diesel vehicles by 2040.

Source: NYT > World

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