Will Germany’s new ‘advocate of the motorists’ surprise with clean mobility shift?

The new German transport minister had made waves early, but his track record could be promising say experts. [EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

Germany’s new transport minister Volker Wissing has raised question marks over the country’s lagging transition to clean mobility. But his track record is promising, reported Clean Energy Wire.

Given widely differing approaches to cutting emissions in the sector, the three parties set to form the new government; the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), presented a coalition agreement that was widely criticised for lacking a coherent strategy for the transport sector.

Even more surprisingly, the coalition agreed to give the transport ministry to the FDP instead of the Greens, who had been widely expected to run the department.

“Germany will remain the country for speeding, ever bigger SUV-city tanks, and state-sponsored climate killer company cars,” said NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH), as many environmentalists were shocked that the transport sector was not likely to progress on reducing emissions.

But mobility experts warn against writing off new transport minister Volker Wissing, the FDP’s general secretary, given his track record as a transport minister at the state level.

The shift to low-emission mobility is a thorny subject in Germany, the only industrialised country without a general motorway speed limit and home to global car brands Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. 

Large parts of the industry have been slow to embrace the shift to electric mobility, triggering widespread fears of massive job losses in Germany’s carmaking regions.

German car parts suppliers fret over combustion engine phase-out

The European Commission’s Fit for 55 package will rapidly tighten emission standards for cars, effectively banning the sale of vehicles fitted with internal combustion engines by 2035. German carmakers had preempted the move, but parts suppliers and employees are worried.

Scathing verdict on coalition’s transport plans

During the election campaign, the shift to zero-emission mobility was one of the most controversial topics, with parties differing wildly on moving forward. Greens and SPD favoured a speed limit on Germany’s autobahns, but the FDP successfully campaigned against it. 

While the FDP saw great promise in using synthetic fuels in cars, the Greens rejected that idea. An end date for the sale of conventional vehicles was favoured by the Greens but again dismissed by the FDP.

The coalition reaffirmed the outgoing government’s aim of making the country a lead market for e-mobility, promising to “massively accelerate” the roll-out of charging infrastructure and support the transition to e-mobility in car industry regions. 

Several experts welcomed plans for rail investments and the new target of having 15 million electric cars on the road by 2030 but added that the treaty didn’t offer many clues on how this could be achieved.

Specialists deplored the lack of a coherent, overarching strategy and said the proposed measures were insufficient for achieving targeted emission cuts. “The instruments on which the three parties have agreed on mobility hardly contribute to achieving the Paris climate goal,” said transport and environmental association VCD. 

Even Green party mobility experts who were involved in the coalition negotiations were disillusioned, participants told Spiegel. They said party leadership may have sacrificed mobility to achieve more climate action in other sectors.

The experienced transport minister

Now, all eyes are on new transport minister Wissing. The 51-year-old lawyer is mainly known as a financial expert and general secretary of his FDP party. But he also served as a transport minister in his home state Rhineland-Palatinate, where he earned a reputation for being undogmatic and analytical. 

Observers of his tenure say Wissing will not be a proponent of what adversaries consider stereotypical FDP policies.  “It is naïve to believe that he will make lobby politics for Porsche drivers because he’s a Free Democrat,” Tagesspiegel wrote, quoting unnamed sources who worked with Wissing at the time. 

During his time as a state transport minister, he reactivated decommissioned railway lines and tried to simplify the use of public transport.

Wissing says he is fully aware that Germany’s transport sector faces huge challenges. “Enormous processes of change are necessary. Things can’t stay the way they are,” he told Phoenix television channel, adding that rail transport must be improved. 

“At the same time, we need to build a charging station infrastructure that makes it possible for everyone to travel longer distances with electromobility,” Wissing said.

Clean mobility proponents don’t rule out the possibility Wissing will prove his party’s critics wrong by taking decisive action to lower transport emissions. 

“The FDP doesn’t exactly have a transport transition built into its DNA, but why shouldn’t that change?” asks Christian Hochfeld, head of clean mobility thinks tank Agora Verkehrswende.

The treaty of technological neutrality

Yet Wissing is beholden to the coalition treaty his party helped negotiate. During the negotiations over the Fit for 55 package proposed by the European Commission, he will have to work to make the “the instruments as technology-neutral as possible.”

In practice, the “technology-neutral” clause echoes demands by the powerful car industry association VDA. “This is hostile to innovation and the opposite of technology-neutral,” explained VDA chief Hildegard Müller in reaction to the Commission proposal to ban cars emitting CO2 past 2035 announced in July.

Wissing has historically espoused a similar type of rhetoric as the car industry. As minister of transport, it was of particular importance to pursue lower-emission transport in a “technology-neutral and sustainable way,” he said in 2017. 

Reaching climate targets was vital but should not be achieved by banning technologies, he said in August 2021 at a talk of environmental NGO DNR.

The outgoing Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer has already said he does not expect a clear departure from his policies under the new government. 

With a dash of irony, he told news agency dpa he could have written the coalition agreement himself. “It’s nice that the [new government coalition] continues my work of the last years.” 

Scheuer had been the third of three federal transport ministers from the Bavarian CSU, the sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, who were all strongly criticised by clean mobility proponents for heavily car-centric policies.

“For starters, it’s positive that we don’t have to endure more CSU car policy,” Friends of the Earth’s Hilgenberg said. 

“But Volker Wissing must now show that he can and will do better by seriously tackling not only the necessary propulsion shift but also the far more important mobility transition,” he added, concerning boosting public transport, cycling, and ending new motorway construction.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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