up in smoke Why a German diesel ban is just a pipe dream

Carmakers and some citizens fear an upcoming court decision on banning diesel cars from German cities. Despite the panic, a nationwide blockade wouldn’t be enforceable.
Ban me if you can.

A much-feared diesel ban might never become a reality thanks to German bureaucracy. Even a simple rule that forbids more than three signs on a single post, for example, could already stop the blockade from being implemented.

At a hearing on Thursday, the Federal Administrative court in Leipzig is expected to rule on whether cities should impose driving bans on older diesel cars to help reduce air pollution. The vehicles emit toxic gases, notably nitrogen oxide, which can cause asthma and leads to around 75,000 premature deaths in Europe.

Faced with lawsuits by environmental group Umwelthilfe, German cities are forced to make the air cleaner and comply with European regulations. A ban on diesel cars sold before 2015 could be an effective way to lower nitrogen oxide levels, but it would also hit drivers and carmakers. A total of 2.8 million German diesel drivers may be affected, according to research based on data from the Federal Motor Transport Authority.

The likes of VW, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Peugeot depend heavily on the sale of diesel cars. The possibility of a ban already pushed down diesel turnover figures last year after VW’s emissions scandal had hurt its reputation in 2016. In theory, billions of euros in sales and book value of diesel cars are at risk. The German ruling might also set a precedent for other European cities, which are grappling with the same problems.

Hamburg's planned diesel ban would only apply to two streets and a total length of two kilometers.

But a closer look at what German municipalities are planning suggests that fears are overblown. In some cases driving bans may just apply to a few streets. Uwe Klinger, a lawyer for Umwelthilfe, said they could be delayed by legal action or by cities taking their time imposing them.

The case being discussed on Thursday addresses two issues: if driving bans are the only way left to achieve cleaner air in German cities, and if federal states and municipalities are entitled to impose them. The court is widely expected to answer yes to both questions.

What happens then will depend on what the city authorities decide. Hamburg, home to the four-lane Max-Brauer-Allee, one of Germany’s 10 most polluted streets, has pledged to ban old diesels as soon as it gets the go-ahead from the Leipzig court. But the plans drawn up envisage bans only two streets and a total length of two kilometers.

Other high-pollution cities are far behind Hamburg when it comes to clean air planning. Düsseldorf and Munich, the latter home to BMW, haven’t decided yet whether they will take action. In Stuttgart, where Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler has its headquarters, closing just a few streets to old diesels could have a drastic impact.

But city officials are scratching their heads how any ban could be enforced. Barring the introduction of a clean air certificate attached to the windscreens of low-pollution cars that some politicians and environmental campaigners are demanding, it would be very difficult to identify cars in violation. They would have to be pulled over and checked by police. Germany’s police federation has already warned it lacks the manpower for that.

As a result many drivers may simply ignore bans. The likely fines of just €15 ($18.60) wouldn’t amount to much of a deterrent. Stuttgart’s city planners have developed a clean air plan including a possible ban, but they already acknowledged that it could fail, because enforcement is difficult.

Officials in the Environment Ministry in the state of Hesse, home to Frankfurt, have said that the ban will fail due to Germany’s traffic regulation. The German rule that forbids more than three signs on a single post will make it impossible to adequately communicate the ban and all its exceptions to drivers on the road.

The town of Limburg in Hesse said in its clean air plan: “Such a clustering of traffic and additional signs at one single point will lead to an information overload.”

Munich city planners estimate that at least 20 percent of old diesels will have to be exempted to allow shift workers to get to work, doctors to make calls and essential services to be maintained. A ban would lead to an excessive increase in the number of traffic signs — 130,000 in Munich alone, which would cost €18 million and take two to three years to put up. Hamburg has devoted 23 pages to outlining all the exemptions.

A Hamburg traffic lawyer, Sigrid Wienhues, concluded: “These (bans) will become complex administrative regulations, which won’t push diesel cars out of the cities.”

A version of this article first appeared in business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]