Merkel promises new legislation to ward off diesel driving bans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and and Volker Bouffier (R), Deputy Leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Hesse Premier, react on stage during an election campaign rally of the Christian Democrats (CDU) in Kassel, Germany, 22 October 2018. [EPA-EFE/Armando Babani]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, campaigning for her Christian Democrats (CDU) to retain control of the crucial state of Hesse in next Sunday’s election, promised legislation to ward off the threat of air pollution leading to driving bans.

Speaking at a news conference on Sunday evening (22 October), Merkel said it would be disproportionate to ban dirty diesel cars from the road in places like Frankfurt, Hesse’s largest city, where nitrogen emissions limits were only marginally exceeded.

Following her allies’ disastrous showing in Bavaria’s regional elections last week, Merkel faces murmurs of dissent within her party. Defeat in the state to the resurgent Greens could prove fatal to her premiership.

Green Party ends conservative CSU’s 61-year political dominance in Bavaria

In a vote it called “historic”, the Green Party ended the absolute majority of conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria on Sunday (14 October) and became the second strongest political force in a state election whose result will resonate in Berlin and beyond and further dent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position.

Emissions from diesel cars have pushed nitrogen levels above the permitted level of 50 milligrams per cubic meter in dozens of cities across Germany, and Merkel’s government is keen to avoid widely unpopular bans from taking the cars on the road.

“Driving bans are disproportionate when it comes to small excess pollution levels,” she said. “We want to change the law … That is a very important piece of information for a city like Frankfurt.”

German court empowers cities to ban old diesel cars

One of Germany’s top courts has ruled that heavily polluting vehicles can be banned from the urban centres of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, a landmark ruling which could cause traffic chaos on the country’s roads and dramatically hit the value of diesel cars.

Striking a populist note

The new legislation would enshrine in law that driving bans were not proportionate in cases of a small excess such as in Frankfurt, where 50 micrograms nitrogen oxide per cubic metre is exceeded, said Merkel.

This could prevent driving bans in 51 German cities, including Berlin and Frankfurt where deployment of cleaner buses and other measures would be sufficient to rein in pollution levels before 2020. In 14 other cities that exceed limits, more needs to be done, including software and hardware retrofits for diesel vehicles, said Merkel.

Striking a populist note, she placed herself firmly on the side of consumers when it came to the cost of expensive retrofitting of vehicles that might be needed in cities where excess pollution is substantial.

“We are on the side of owners of diesel cars and are clear that they should suffer no financial harm,” she said. “We believe the car industry bears responsibility because it has massively undermined trust in it.”

A series of scandals involving schemes to conceal the true levels of pollutant emissions from diesel cars has dealt repeated blows to the global reputation of Germany’s car industry in recent years.

Off-limit new diesel cars evade European city bans

The vast majority of new diesel-powered vehicles that don’t meet EU emission limits still manage to escape low emission zones or diesel bans in European cities, according to new research published today (14 March).

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