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19 Dec 2018, 14:19
Benjamin Wehrmann

NGO triggering diesel bans now eyes speed limit on German Autobahn

Diesel driving bans in numerous German cities are a major blow to many car drivers, the country’s carmakers, and its leading politicians. Now, the NGO that set the ball rolling on the bans is eyeing legal steps to end the world-famous right to drive as fast as you want on large sections of the German Autobahn. Environmental Action Germany (DUH) says the introduction of a general speed limit will reduce emissions. But the NGO's increasing impact on policymaking has started to cause resistance by policymakers who argue it aims to damage the country’s car industry, and now hope to curtail DUH's influence.

The NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH) is considering legal steps to force the introduction of a comprehensive speed limit on the German Autobahn, renowned internationally for long sections without any speed restrictions. Following a decision by the EU to introduce tighter 2030 CO2 emission limits for new cars, DUH head Jürgen Resch said at the NGO's annual conference that cars already on the road also needed to contribute to emission reductions in Europe. He added DUH is currently reviewing the available legal options to enforce a speed limit, and might go on to forge “unusual alliances” to press ahead with the initiative.

“Nowhere else is emissions reduction as far off target as in the transport sector,” Resch said. Germany has set itself CO2 reduction targets for all sectors of the economy, but has seen an increase in transport emissions compared to 1990 levels.

A speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour on the Autobahn and of 80 kilometres per hour on country roads could save up to five million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, Resch said. Germany’s total emissions in 2017 amounted to 905 million tonnes, thereof around 170 million tonnes in the transport sector. “Germany is the only industrialised country without speed limits. We finally need a clear signal for climate action - today and not the day after tomorrow.” Moreover, slower speeds on Germany’s roads would mean fewer accidents and a smoother traffic flow, the DUH head said.

The DUH proposal is set to cause an outcry in a country not only known for its mighty car manufacturers Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, but also for the fact that many citizens feel very passionate about their cars. Germany’s transport minister Andreas Scheuer already said he opposes a general speed limit. He called the DUH proposal a “smoke grenade that won’t withstand expert scrutiny.” According to the minister, fewer emissions should be achieved “by incentives, not by prohibitions.”

Merkel’s CDU ponders how to curb the DUH's influence 

The DUH was a key player in the enforcement of driving bans for highly polluting diesel cars in German cities, by sueing local administrations. Following lawsuits filed by the NGO, Germany’s highest administrative court ruled earlier this year that cities with air pollution levels above the admissible EU limit have to introduce driving bans if other measures to bring down nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels bear no satisfying results. From Berlin to Munich, diesel bans could take effect in dozens of German cities in 2019.

The diesel bans are just one aspect of Germany’s protracted dieselgate scandal. Carmakers manipulated millions of diesel vehicles in order to reduce emissions during lab tests only. However, the DUH’s success in threatening diesel cars out of inner cities has irked many politicians in the country, including influential CDU party colleagues of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who accuse the NGO of being an agent of foreign carmakers tasked with damaging Germany’s automotive industry and are examining ways to strip it of its “charitable” label in order to block it from receiving public funding and limit its right to file lawsuits.

The DUH has also been under fire for making money by regularly sending written warnings to companies they see in breach of environmental regulations and receiving the fees or even penalties, a practice which its status as a non-profit listed by the Federal Office of Justice entitles it to. However, DUH head Resch has said his NGO does not actually earn more money with the written warnings than it spends on uncovering the breaches and adds that authorities regularly fail to carry out these controls themselves, even though they are legally obliged to do so.

The ultimate decision about the NGO's non-profit status lies with the tax authorities rather than parliament. Merkel's coalition partner from the SPD, which also heads the finance ministry in Berlin, has shown no signs of joining the CDU in its move against the NGO. However, the DUH says such an outright attack on its work “is nothing that could be expected from a democratic party”.

An attempt “to block critical NGOs from accessing courts or to impede their funding is something we know from countries like Hungary, Poland or Russia” and would be a first for Germany, the NGO says. The DUH insists it is merely “enforcing existing law.” The NGO said it suspected a targeted attack by the car lobby, because the influential CDU regional group proposing a curtailment of the NGO is headed by several politicians active in the German car industry.

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