Traffic jam on a German highway. Source: Pixabay
02 Nov 2017 | Benjamin Wehrmann

Combustion engine ban splitting point in coalition talks on transport

After an expected clash over climate and energy policy last week, Germany’s aspiring coalition partners of the conservative CDU/CSU alliance, the pro-business FDP and the environmentalist Green Party also failed to agree on transport policy, an equally controversial topic. At the coalition talks on Wednesday, the debate over an end to combustion engines in Germany and looming driving bans for polluting cars in several major cities were splitting points as the potential Jamaica coalition partners’ ideas for the future of the mighty German car industry differ considerably.

“It’s going to be another tough day at the Jamaica talks,” CSU politician Alexander Dobrindt said ahead of the discussions. The incumbent transport minister stressed that the conservatives clearly rejected an outright ban for newly registered cars with combustion engines, a prominent Green demand in the run up to September's elections.

During Wednesday’s exploratory talks, which are aimed at setting the stage for official coalition negotiations, the parties’ representatives did not find enough common ground to present a working paper on transport. Just like the controversial issues of climate and energy policy, transport policy was therefore postponed. The parties were initially expected to continue discussions on central Energiewende aspects on Thursday but the talks were ultimately delegated to a small circle of representatives to avoid delays in other policy areas.

Transport minister Dobrindt said that any German government had to cooperate with the industry to address future challenges instead of working against corporate interests. A ban on combustion engines, one of Germany's most successful industrial inventions and a key component of the country’s important automotive industry, was therefore “not possible” with his party, Dobrindt said.

The Greens, on the other hand, say internal combustion engines should be banned in newly registered cars by 2030. The party says a ban is necessary to curb CO2 emissions in the transport sector as well as to stimulate an inevitable shift to electric cars. Green Party leader Cem Özdemir stressed that a restructuring of the German car industry towards more sustainability was a principal aim of his party and indispensable for preserving the car industry’s competitiveness. "It's about re-inventing the car," Özdemir said. “Ecologic modernisation,” which includes a gradual shift to e-mobility, has been a basic principle of the party’s manifesto [Find a summary of all German parties' energy & climate policy positions here].

Car industry under fire

The German car industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and holds a central position in the country’s manufacturing sector, has come under intense fire over the last two years. The largest carmakers, VW, Daimler, and BMW, are embroiled in a scandal over manipulated emissions values of their vehicles, known as dieselgate [See CLEW's timeline of the emissions fraud scandal for background].

Green leader Özdemir said his party was adamant on ensuring that the car companies assume full responsibility for their actions in the dieselgate scandal and insisted that a mechanical retrofitting of affected cars had to be carried out. "A simple software update won't do," the Green party leader said with a view to millions of vehicles equipped with manipulation software to make vehicles seem less polluting. Changes to the cars' hardware were necessary to ensure that air quality in inner cities is protected, he added.

Transport minister Dobrindt has been repeatedly criticised in the past by the Greens and others for allegedly trying to avoid such a measure in order to limit the financial responsibility of implicated carmakers [See the CLEW factsheet on the debate over an end to combustion engines in Germany for more information].

Transport has also become a focus of German climate policy. Recent calculations by the federal environment ministry have shown that Germany is set to widely miss its 2020 climate targets without drastic action. In a short report aimed at facilitating the political debate, the government's expert commission that evaluates the energy transition’s progress also highlighted that the country had failed to make sufficient progress in the transport sector.

Announcements by France and the United Kingdom to set dates for a phase-out of combustion engines as well as China's more aggressive move towards e-mobility all add pressure on Germany and its flagship car industry. Industry observers warn that German companies lag behind in implementing the transition to electric mobility and impair their ability to catch up with Asian and US e-car competitors by clinging to the combustion engine.

Looming driving bans in inner cities

Impending driving bans for polluting diesel cars in several German cities following a court ruling in summer are another bone of contention in the Jamaica talks on transport policy.

The Greens want to introduce an admission system for polluting vehicles to inner cities, known as the "blue badge", in order to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. NOis said to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths in the country every year and the court’s ruling threatens to impose driving bans if the industry does not come up with a solution to make cars cleaner. “Progress in this area is absolutely critical for us,” Green parliamentary group leader Anton Hofreiter told public broadcaster ZDF.

The Greens’ demands in the transport sector also include a rapid expansion of infrastructure for electric mobility needed for a substantial increase in the share of electric vehicles as well as the introduction of a tax reward system that benefits owners of low-emission vehicles and disadvantages those who own cars that produce more CO2.

The FDP also says that electric mobility in Germany ought to be strengthened. However, they reject subsidies for e-car infrastructure and, like the conservatives, oppose a ban on new registrations of cars with combustion engines. Instead, the FDP says the state should support research into alternative engine technology.

With respect to the looming driving bans, FDP head Christian Lindner said his party opposed any legal restrictions for diesel car owners. The air in affected areas was “good” and stricter EU emissions limits should not be introduced too soon, he argued. “We can make traffic more environmentally friendly by way of electrification and digitalisation,” Lindner added.

The Greens have signalled they are ready to make compromises in coalition talks. However, it is likely that the party base will demand a clear roadmap for how Germany should lower its emissions in the transport sector if they are to vote for starting official coalition negotiations.

Most Germans believe e-cars will dominate market in 2030

Lobby groups such as the alternative mobility association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VDC) say the aspiring coalition partners have to come up with a transport policy that not only sets ambitious emissions limits but also increases investments in railroad and bicycle traffic. Also, “subsidies that are harmful to the climate,” such as tax rebates for diesel cars or for international flights, should be abandoned, the VDC said in a press release.

Association head Wasilis von Rauch said that in light of the COP23 in Bonn, Germany had to signal its determination to step up climate protection in the transport sector. Transport policy so far mostly consisted of “building roads and keeping the dirty diesel alive. This can be improved,” von Rauch said.

According to a recent survey by the German Energy Agency (dena), most Germans believe that electric vehicles will dominate the market for private cars by 2030. A clear majority of 59 percent said fully electric or hybrid vehicles were going to be preferred vehicles of choice in the near future, whereas 21 percent said combustion engines would retain their top position.

Respondents were split over the question of whether German carmakers were ready for the transition in engine technology, with about half saying VW, Daimler, BMW and others would stay competitive and half said they would not.

On Wednesday, the parties also sounded out each other’s positions on agriculture, an equally contested policy area for the Greens and the conservative CDU/CSU alliance. “Differences are just as big here as they are over climate and energy policy,” the Greens’ Hofreiter said.

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