Matthias Wissmann, president of the VDA automobile association, likes to bike through downtown Berlin to show that car-lovers can also be environmentally aware and down to earth.
However, Mr. Wissmann knows that the challenges facing the industry – which has annual sales of €235 billion ($290 billion) and employs 760,000 people in Germany – cannot be tackled with a few PR stunts.
German carmakers face an existential threat to their highly profitable business models.
Starting in 2021, new cars built in the European Union will only be allowed to emit 95 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer – roughly equivalent to using four liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers, or getting 60 miles to the gallon.
German cars currently burn an average of 5.5 liters.
In both Berlin and Brussels, the hot-button political debate about lowering CO2 emissions to 75 grams by 2030 in order to reach the European Union's climate protection targets is underway.
Many auto engineers think that might be impossible to reach with conventional combustion engines. But carmakers face fines worth millions of euros should they not meet the E.U. targets.
“The regulations cannot be met without electric mobility,” said BMW boss Norbert Reithofer.
Volkswagen head Martin Winterkorn said reducing CO2 emissions by a single gram costs the company €100 million in research and development. Alternatives are desperately needed.
The industry cannot do without the lobbying power of VDA president Mr. Wissmann. He has to try to present a unified front from a diverse sector with differing interests, including parts suppliers, luxury brands like BMW and mass producers like VW. He also has to coordinate with other car industry lobby groups across Europe.
“The automotive industry is going through an exciting time,” he said recently.
In truth, the sector has no satisfying answer to the looming CO2 problem.
Germany’s goal of putting one million e-cars on the roads by 2020 is now considered impossible to reach, with currently only 25,000 of them humming quietly along.
A close friend of Chancellor Angela Merkel and a fellow Christian Democrat, he will need to exercise all his influence to avoid draconian European CO2 regulations.
“The federal government has always been aware that we are an important industry,” said one source at a carmaker.
Whether when setting the 95-gram limit or using electric cars to offset other vehicle emissions, the chancellor has always been open to Mr. Wissmann’s considerations. And he hopes it won’t be any different this time.
“The auto industry is already constructing a massive scare scenario for the time after 2021,” said Stephan Kühn, the transport policy spokesman for the environmentalist Green party. “The carmakers are trying everything to shirk as much responsibility as possible – including putting it on the consumer.”
One suggestion popular with the industry is including transportation traffic in the CO2 emissions trading, which would mean carmakers would no longer have to work so hard to make their vehicles more efficient. Instead, the cost of reducing greenhouse gases would be paid at the gas pump.
Carmakers also want to delay the new CO2 limits until they can sell more electric cars. Germany’s goal of putting one million e-cars on the roads by 2020 is now considered impossible to reach, with currently only 25,000 of them humming quietly along.
But Mr. Wissmann is aware he can’t simply rely on his friendship with the German chancellor, which is why he is trying to cultivate ties to the new E.U. commissioner for climate and energy policy, Spain’s Miguel Arias Cañete.
The two men have spoken on the phone, but VDA’s Brussels office is still trying to set up a meeting.
The mood in Europe has turned against the auto industry. E.U. leaders agreed in October to cut CO2 emissions by “at least 40 percent” by 2030. The transport sector will almost certainly be asked to do more to help reach that goal.
Whether hybrid and electric cars can help automakers reach their CO2 targets is still unclear. Demand for these models remains modest. But the German government has so far refused to offer buying premiums for cleaner cars, as some other countries have done.
Matthias Groote, a German member of the European Parliament for the center-left Social Democrats, said the E.U. Commission should be more pragmatic when it comes to setting emissions targets.
“They will have to orient themselves on the buying habits of consumers, who are voting with their wallets,” said Mr. Groote.
This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors: [email protected]