German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces toxic diesel issue at air quality meet

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Chancellor Angela Merkel is a major promoter of Germany's car industry and a staple of the Frankfurt auto show.

Three weeks before German
elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday faced the toxic
“dieselgate” scandal which pits the interests of Germany’s powerful auto
sector against public health fears over air pollution.

Merkel
met the mayors of some 30 cities and towns where courts or local
governments are considering driving bans on diesel vehicles to cut down
on nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions that cause smog, acid rain and fine
particle pollution.
The chancellor has
made clear she will try to stop such bans in order to protect the
crucial industrial sector whose global titans like VW, Audi, Mercedes
and BMW earn billions of euros in exports and employ between 800,000 and
900,000 people.
“We are working to prevent driving bans,” Merkel said before the meeting, stressing in a TV election debate on Sunday that “we will need the combustion engine for decades to come”.
While
Merkel has often spoken of her long-term vision of a carbon-free
economy run by climate friendly green technology, she made clear last
week that, when it comes to the diesel issue, “this is 2017”.
The
emissions cheating scandal that has engulfed VW and other companies
since 2015 has already depressed the resale value of diesel cars, and
urban driving bans would sharply accelerate the trend — a powerful
election issue for millions of voters.
Monday’s
meeting was expected to focus on ways to prevent such bans by helping
Germany’s smoggiest cities clear the air — including by promoting
electric car charging infrastructure, cycling lanes and buses and
garbage trucks that run on clean energies.
Money
for some of the programmes could come from a new 500-billion-euro ($600
billion) fund, financed in equal parts by the German government and the
car industry.

‘Pretend-solutions’

VW
plunged into its worst ever crisis when US investigators in 2015 forced
it to admit having fitted 11 million diesel engines with “defeat
devices” to cheat on emissions tests. They hid the fact that vehicles
spewed as much as 30 times the permissible NOx limits during normal
driving.
While VW has agreed to pay $4.3
billion in penalties and $17.5 billion in civil settlements in the
United States, it has escaped fines of such magnitude in Europe.

VW's reputation has been muddied by the diesel scandal.

VW’s reputation has been muddied by the diesel scandal.
(DPA/AFP/File)

At a recent government-industry “diesel summit” in Germany,
carmakers promised to reduce emissions with software patches, rather
than more expensive hardware fixes, while also offering trade-in
incentives for old diesels.
Environmental
group Greenpeace fumed that “instead of protecting people in cities
from toxic exhaust fumes and promoting innovation in the auto industry,
the government continues to tolerate these pretend-solutions”.
WWF
has accused the Merkel government of a “misguided protectionism” of the
car sector which ends up hurting green innovation while foreign
competitors are forging ahead.
And Juergen Resch of
environmental pressure group DUH, which is behind many of the court
challenges, has vowed to bring even more cases, stressing that NOx is
linked to over 10,000 premature deaths per year in Germany.

‘Car chancellor’

Merkel was dubbed the “car chancellor” in 2013 after she went to bat for the sector and argued against an EU cap on emissions.
But she and her centre-right CDU are not alone in having cosy ties with the auto sector, the backbone of the German economy.
Germany’s other major party, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), also have deep ties. The SPD stronghold state of Lower Saxony, where VW is based, has a 20-percent stake in the company.
Merkel has repeatedly said she was “angered” by the auto sector’s transgressions and demanded more “honesty and transparency” in the future.
However,
she has also spoken out against costly hardware fixes for diesel
engines, and refused to commit to a date by which Germany should phase
out fossil fuel-powered cars, as Britain and France have vowed to do by
2040.

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