Few things are as sacred in Germany as the absence of speed limits on long stretches of the country’s superhighway system, the autobahn.
All those high-performance luxury cars – Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche – can roar along at 200 kilometers (125 miles) per hour or more, making automobiles the fastest connection for all but the longest trips. Everyone from company CEOs in their chauffeur-driven cars to sportscar enthusiasts can let it rip.
It is the third rail of German politics, as became evident once again when Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer postponed a Wednesday meeting of an expert commission on future mobility at short notice. Some working group members had dared to consider setting a speed limit on the autobahn among other measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The group’s potential proposals, around 50 in total, were leaked to the press last week, even though the commission as a whole had not yet reached a compromise on which measures it would propose to the government. The topic of introducing a speed limit hit a nerve, similar to discussing abortion or the right to own guns in America.
Scheuer, a member of the conservative Bavarian party CSU, called the speed limit and some other measures “against all common sense,” or, when decoding his diplomatic choice of words, “utterly and completely insane.” He canceled the meeting with the working group, because “there was a need to discuss the functioning of the committee,” a source said.
The speed limit was not the only unpleasant measure in the packet to help Germany meets its goal of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Another measure was a 52-cent increase in the tax on gasoline and diesel, meaning a liter of gasoline would jump by a third to around €2 per liter ($7.57 per gallon) from €1.47 currently. A third suggestion was a surtax on gas guzzlers – just as SUVs are gaining in popularity in Germany.
Scheuer said he wants to motivate citizens to embrace new mobility technologies. “Demands that trigger anger, annoyance, and stress or endanger our prosperity will not become reality and I reject them.”
The tabloid Bild, Germany’s most popular newspaper, bristled with headlines such as “Diesel haters call for speed limit on highways” and “What have we car drivers done to you?” The editor-in-chief of newspaper Die Welt told public broadcaster DLF: “The autobahn has proven to be the last bastion of freedom, where we enjoy more liberties than other people on the planet.”
Germany is the only European country without a blanket speed limit on highways, although restrictions apply on many segments. Drivers on autobahns in the city-state of Bremen, for instance, can legally drive no faster than 120 km/h.
Proponents say a cap on speed would cut CO2 emissions and save lives. Ralf Stegner, a Social Democrat, wants a national limit of 130 km/h to help fight climate change. Environmental group Umwelthilfe, which has enforced diesel bans in a number of German cities, is proposing a top speed of 120 km/h on the autobahn and 80 km/h on country roads.
Members of the working group, which includes representatives of car lobby group VDA, union IG Metall, rail operator Deutsche Bahn, Volkswagen, and environmental group BUND, criticized the minister’s decision to postpone the meeting. It was all too reminiscent of how a working group on retrofitting of diesel engines was treated. There, too, meetings were repeatedly postponed and the recommendations of the group ultimately ignored, complained Dietmar Oeliger, traffic expert at the nature conservancy Nabu and a participant in the group.
A representative of the Greens environmental party, Stephan Kühn, accused Scheuer not only of wanting to discredit the experts in the working group, but to torpedo the whole effort. Scheuer feels more duty-bound to the auto industry than to climate protection, he said.
The working group is one of six looking at the future of mobility with the goal of making it climate-neutral. Other measures under consideration are more efficient cars and trucks, a quota for electric new car sales (25 percent of new car sales by 2025, 50 percent by 2030), and government subsidies for purchase of low-emission vehicles. In total, the measures will save 28 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the annual 75 million target for transport. Setting a speed limit would reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 3 million tons.
The committee, led by the former SAP boss Henning Kagermann, is expected to present its proposals to the government at the end of March. Angela Merkel’s coalition and parliament then have to decide which measures it will turn into policy.
Daniel Delhaes covers political parties for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]