Diesel-fuelled vehicles can be legally banned from certain roads or areas in German municipalities to combat air pollution, a top court ruled Tuesday, in a verdict that could have wide-ranging effects on the nation’s automotive industry.
The ruling applies to the cities of Dusseldorf and Stuttgart but could clear the way for other German cities to impose limits on diesel use. That could carry consequences for Germany’s large auto industry, which has relied greatly on diesel-powered vehicles.
The autos have become controversial since September 2015, when Volkswagen admitted to installing software in its diesel vehicles around the world that manipulated emissions test results. The scandal has since ensnared Daimler and VW offshoots Audi and Porsche.
Dusseldorf and Stuttgart had sought to interpret German law so they could implement diesel bans in an effort to clean up polluted air. They are two of approximately 70 German cities and municipalities that exceed air pollution limits, according to the Federal Environmental Agency.
“As of today, we have achieved diesel vehicle bans,” said Juergen Resch, head of the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), which was also a party to the complaint.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel downplayed the reach and consequences of the court’s decision.
“It has to do with individual cities in which more needs to be done,” the chancellor said. “But it doesn’t really have to do with the entire country and all car owners in Germany.”
Although the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig approved the principle of diesel bans, it told Dusseldorf and Stuttgart to review their clean air plans to make sure they comply with guidelines.
Stuttgart was cautioned to make sure any bans did not affect newer cars exempt from such actions. Dusseldorf was told to make sure a car ban was the only effective solution.
Stuttgart plans to introduce its ban no earlier than September 1, and allow exceptions for a variety of vehicles, including ones used by tradespeople.
The court did not require cities implementing bans to compensate drivers who would be forced to keep their vehicles outside city limits.
“Certain losses in value are to be expected,” said presiding Judge Andreas Korbmacher.
Korbmacher urged German municipalities to work together on the bans and any other clean air guidelines to avoid a “patchwork” of rules that would make it hard for German motorists and businesses to operate vehicles in multiple cities.
Tuesday’s ruling builds on district court rulings that municipalities need more powers to ensure clean air and that vehicle bans might be the best way to implement them. Those rulings had been reversed by state courts, which had found that the attempt to ban diesel could not be made without the passage of a new federal law.
The German government said Tuesday it hoped to avoid the need for diesel bans by improving overall air quality by other means.
“That is also doable with the variety of measures that we proposed,” said Transport Minister Christian Schmidt.
Schmidt pointed to a running government fund of 1 billion euros meant to support local authorities with the purchase of electric vehicles and buses or improved traffic controls.
Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks echoed Schmidt in noting that pollution can be counteracted with other measures.
Hendricks, a member of Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats, said carmakers as “perpetrators of the problem” should not be let off the hook, but that there is still a stretch of time in which “bold measures” can be used in place of a diesel ban.
Air pollution has become a growing problem in German cities, with much of the focus on nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can cause a variety of health problems affecting breathing and the circulatory system.
Vehicular traffic is responsible for 60 per cent of this pollution and diesel cars, which are popular in Germany, are a major portion of that.
Upper limits on the amount of such gases allowed in the atmosphere have been in place since 2010, but not universally enforced, despite lobbying efforts by environmental groups and actions by cities like Dusseldorf and Stuttgart.
The European Union has also pressured Germany to clean up its air. An EU court case also threatens if Germany does not take action quickly enough to clean up its air.
Germany’s federal government is considering changes to traffic law that would give municipalities new rights to create traffic bans.
Cities pushing such bans have called on the government to implement the use of the Euro 6 blue disc, a standardized guide to show which vehicles meet the latest EU emissions standard. So far, Berlin has tried to stop that system from taking root in Germany.