A German court has ruled that the cities of Stuttgart and Duesseldorf in Germany can ban diesel cars and trucks in an effort to combat air pollution, a decision with far-reaching implications for the country that invented the diesel engine, and also to a far wider watching audience.
The ruling by the Federal Administrative Court stirred fears from motorists, car dealerships and other businesses worried about the financial impact, not to mention the giant used car market in general. Chancellor Merkel's government sought to reassure drivers it would seek to prevent such drastic measures by insisting there are other ways to reduce urban pollution. Not exactly clear-cut by any means, and there may well be more to come on this saga.
There will certainly be EU countries keeping an eye on what Germany does next, including the UK."It's a great day for clean air in Germany," said Juergen Resch, head of the group Environmental Action Germany, which has already sued many German cities for failing to meet legally binding emissions limits.
While diesel cars produce less carbon dioxide and tend to get better mileage than their petrol-driven counterparts, they do emit higher levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and are contributers to respiratory illnesses and some 6,000 deaths annually, according to German government figures. Two German states had appealed lower court decisions that suggested bans on particularly dirty diesel cars would be effective. Germany's highest administrative court rejected that appeal on Tuesday, effectively instructing the two cities at the centre of the case - Stuttgart and Dusseldorf - to consider issuing bans as part of their clean air plans.
What comes next is open to question. It's not clear whether other cities in Germany will actually move to ban diesels, or if it's a case of every city will need to be taken to court in order to make it a nationwide ban. And if they are, it then remains to be seen whether automakers are forced to upgrade exhaust and software systems or buy back vehicles. Presumably the German government might offer consumers incentives to scrap diesel vehicles, should car makers find loopholes to wriggle free of any liability, or if owners will be left on their own, forced to bear the full brunt of any costs. And of course, not forgetting the $64,000 dollar question: will this two-city ban influence decision-making in the UK?
If it does, we might expect extensive charging for diesel-powered vehicles by the British government, and far in excess than they are presently, which could result in a wise move by motorists to avoid buying diesel vehicles altogether; at least until there exists a clearer indication from government that any such move will be made. If you're unsure, and contemplating purchasing a diesel vehicle, it would be a very good idea to contact your MP for guidance on the matter, and certainly for peace of mind. The burdon placed on UK motorists, who're already heavily taxed beyond any reasonable belief, could be a step too far in these extensive and ridiculously needless times of enforced austerity.
The administrative court said that cities in Germany won't be required to compensate drivers for being unable to use diesel powered vehicles. This being such a moot point, the German Association of the Automotive Industry stressed that the government could ease any uncertainty by not actually leaving it to cities to decide on a case-by-case basis. It goes on: "We hope it comes to sensible national regulations.” European cities considering diesel bans like Copenhagen and Paris will be watching how the situation plays out in Germany as they make their own decisions.
Jeff Schuster, of consulting firm LMC Automotive (based in 'Motor City' Detroit, Michigan), also have a base in Frankfurt and several other locations throughout the world. They are leading providers of automotive industry market intelligence, and said that diesel bans could spread to other polluted European cities. But they also stressed that the market in Europe, China and elsewhere was already headed in that direction because of the bigger push toward electric vehicles and the extensive damage done by the Volkswagen diesel-emissions cheating scandal.
Various German political leaders have stressed that diesel owners shouldn't have to shoulder the full burden of any ban, including this by Kai Wegner on behalf of Merkel's party,"The auto industry that caused harmful emissions has to upgrade diesel engines at its expense."
The British car industry would be fractured if a similar ban were to reach Britain's shores. Many people make a living from the diesel automotive industry, including many farmers who rely on vehicles powered by diesel fuels. It's worth noting that the many trucks hauling freight to and from Europe do so by diesel power, from every corner of Britain. Any effective out and out ban would instantly give rise to almost immediate increases in retail pricing, leaving the consumer dramatically out of pocket. This could well be the tip of the iceberg.
We might watch Germany closely from this point onwards. We might also monitor the entire situation even closer still as it's worth pointing out that we happen to find ourselves in the middle of a right old Brexit headache. If more EU cities join the ban on diesel power, how long will it be before the EU decide all cities in the Union must follow suit?
However, the bigger question we might have to ask ourselves sooner rather than later is: will it be health or wealth for British people? If it's health, future generations may one day see us as crusading heroes. If it's wealth, it could well be the opposite!
Cordelia Houseman for Political Provocateur
Edited by Simon O'Donnell for Political Provocateur