- - Tuesday, February 27, 2018

BERLIN — A German court poured a bucket of cold water on Europe’s long love affair with diesel power Tuesday, clearing the way for cities in the country that invented diesel technology to ban older, dirtier cars from their urban cores, and perhaps eventually from across the Continent.

The case pitted an environmental group against the automotive hubs of Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, the heart of Europe’s largest and more powerful auto industry. The Federal Administrative Court dismissed a challenge to a lower-court ruling that the cities have to take quick action to clean up their air to meet European Union standards and that a ban on diesel cars was an option.

The decision could have an economic and cultural impact across Europe, where diesel-powered cars claim half or more of the consumer market, compared with 3 percent or less in the United States.

The ruling also delivers a blow to Germany’s vaunted but beleaguered auto industry, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which has continued to implement diesel-friendly measures despite emissions scandals that have rocked corporate giants such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz in recent years.

“Politicians have caused the problem,” said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor with the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “We have bad laws, and these laws allowed vehicles to be brought into market that are catastrophic for the environment.”

In Europe, diesel fuel has been branded for decades as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to gasoline, largely because diesel vehicles are more fuel-efficient and emit less carbon dioxide than their gasoline-powered rivals. It is another hometown headache for the EU, which has tried to position itself as a leader in the global climate change movement after President Trump took the U.S. out of the Paris agreement.

As a result, European governments for many years created massive tax incentives for purchasing diesel vehicles. Last year, 41 percent of all new passenger cars registered in the European Union were diesel, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Such policies, however, didn’t take into account that diesel vehicles spew more particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere than traditional gasoline engines. These toxins are directly related to serious health issues. Paris, London, Oslo and Milan are among the cities dealing with soaring pollution rates and health-related alerts. Many cities impose fees or entry restrictions on cars and trucks entering the central urban core.

The diesel issue became a global scandal after U.S. regulators discovered that German auto manufacturers had installed “defeat devices” in their vehicles that shut off during road tests, allowing for vehicles that didn’t comply with emissions standards to enter the market. Germany auto giant Volkswagen was fined more than $20 billion by the Obama administration after the deception was discovered in 2015.

Export powerhouse

The problem for Berlin is that more than half of the country’s trade surplus and 1 in 5 jobs are linked to the auto industry, long an exporting powerhouse, and government officials avoided the issue, stalled and later took half-measures, say analysts.

Still, the debate raged, especially after evidence came to light last summer that German automakers had worked together to collectively influence the market.

Ms. Merkel’s government reached a deal with the industry to update emissions software in only 5 million affected vehicles to avoid the need for driving bans and tougher emissions standards. The automakers managed to avoid the costly hardware upgrades needed, environmentalists say.

German courts, however, have deemed that such measures don’t go far enough.

With the bans now deemed legal in Stuttgart and Dusseldorf — which would likely apply to all diesel vehicles made before 2015 by September 2019, other German cities appear ready to follow, said Remo Klinger, a lawyer representing German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the plaintiff in the case.

Deutsche Umwelthilfe has 19 cases in litigation against German municipalities.

“All of our lawsuits have been made on the assumption that the fastest possible compliance with air quality limits isn’t possible without these driving bans,” said Mr. Klinger.

The German automotive industry, meanwhile, insists the bans are not necessary and warned against a patchwork of rules and restrictions if each city adopts its own emissions rules.

Free software updates for new models, coupled with other industry and government initiatives …, “will rapidly and significantly improve air quality in cities,” said Matthias Wissmann, president of Germany’s Federal Association of the Automotive Industry. “We hope it comes to sensible national regulations.”

Berlin’s Chamber of Commerce said companies in the capital would have to spend $295 million to replace their fleets if diesel cars are banned — enough to drive many out of business, The Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, Ms. Merkel asked the public not to jump to conclusions about the future of their vehicles.

“On this day, it’s important to keep in mind: This is about specific cities in which there’s still a need for further discussion,” she said shortly after the ruling. “This really isn’t about all areas and all motorists in Germany.”

But Mr. Dudenhoeffer said the federal government had placated the auto industry for too long. Measures could have been taken years ago to eliminate fuel subsidies for diesel, and the money could have been used to retrofit older, more pollutant-heavy models, he said.

The result would be the implementation of the bans and the end of the diesel market, he added.

“This decision isn’t the beginning of the end for diesel,” he said. “The point of no return was crossed long ago — [with] Diesel-gate in America.”

Greg Archer, director of clean vehicles with think tank Transport & Environment in Brussels, said the diesel markets in Germany and elsewhere in Europe have been irreparably damaged. Sales of diesels are rapidly declining in Britain and Germany, and customer resistance is growing in other European markets as well.

He said the decision is bound to echo across the Continent.

“We know of cities across Europe that are now considering diesel bans that previously weren’t,” he said.

In the end, mishaps of industry and the government are a lose-lose for everyone — including consumers, he added.

“Drivers are going to be turned off to diesel by fears that they won’t be able to drive those cars into cities in the future,” he predicted. “Residual values are going to be much less than they’d hoped for, and the industry is going to be faced with potentially enormous costs trying to clean up past mistakes.”

This article is based in part on wire reports.

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