Yellow vests Ban on diesel vehicles drives Germans to the street – to protest

The real costs of distant climate goals are becoming clearer with bans on diesel and talk of autobahn speed limits.
Quelle: dpa
Preaching to the catalytic converters: a driving-ban protest.

By and large, Germans are not as rowdy as their neighbors in France, but they are as touchy about their cars and the affordability of driving. So even in well-behaved Germany, angry drivers are beginning to take to the streets to protest bans on driving diesel vehicles.

Several hundred people attended a demonstration in Stuttgart last Saturday, as the city that is home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche became one of the first to enforce a driving ban this month due to pollution. Larger rallies may be in store as the Free Democrats have called for a protest on February 9.

The somewhat abstract discussion about Germany weaning itself off fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions to zero – something that will take decades to realize – has suddenly become much more immediate, with actual bans and talk of a speed limit on the autobahn.

Protests are not likely to be as big or raucous as the “yellow vest” demonstrations that have roiled France and forced President Emmanuel Macron to walk back plans to raise gasoline taxes. But then again, the French have a lot more practice in rioting. It takes far less to alarm German politicians.

Cancer as politics

Adding fuel to the fire, more than 100 German pulmonologists signed a paper this week casting doubt on the health risks from the fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide spewed out by diesel engines. The paper, written by a former president of the German Respiratory Society, Dieter Köhler, challenged the existing studies claiming harm.

So now, the emissions standards set by the European Union have become a political football in Germany, exposing once again the warring factions within the ruling coalition.

Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance, welcomed the doctors’ statement questioning the basis for the diesel driving bans. But Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a Social Democrat, rejected the doctors’ criticism, saying the emissions limits were set to protect residents.

The large majority of cities manage to keep within the limits, she noted. Problems arise in cities like Stuttgart, where there is a lot of traffic and plenty of diesel engines.

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“So we don’t have an emissions standard problem,” she said, “but a diesel and a traffic problem which we can solve, for instance, by retrofitting with hardware.” Attacking the science behind the emissions standard is a diversionary tactic, Schulze said, and she expressed surprise that physicians would be part of it.

The driving bans have brought the goals of Germany’s ambitious climate protection plans into sharp relief. A recent study from the industry lobby BDI found that extra costs to implement the goals for 2030 – including a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions – would run to €250 billion ($285 billion). To cut emissions 80 percent or more by 2050 would cost at least $1.5 trillion, the BDI said.

Reports last week that a climate working group was considering autobahn speed limits to help dampen emissions led to such an uproar that Scheuer postponed the group's meeting planned for this week. Those plans also include a sharp increase in fuel taxes, the very issue that provoked the French. Climate targets that looked good in theory may quickly crumble if they bite into the lifestyles and incomes of a wider public.

Daniel Delhaes covers parliament for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Silke Kersting covers climate policy. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]