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28th Nov 2021

German court upholds diesel car ban in cities

Banning diesel cars from German cities is a legitimate tool to increase air quality, Germany's federal administrative court in Leipzig ruled on Tuesday (27 February).

The Leipzig court – the highest body in Germany for administrative law – rejected a request to declare diesel bans unlawful.

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  • Low-emission zones – 'Umweltzone' in German – often elicit strong emotions with owners of banned vehicles (Photo: Steffen Voß)

The ruling is important beyond Germany, as it will diminish the appeal of diesel vehicles to consumers in the EU's largest member state – and largest market for Europe's car industry.

Germany currently has 58 environmental zones or low-emission zones. Diesel vehicles produced before a certain year are often among those that are banned.

The Leipzig ruling takes place almost two and a half years after the Dieselgate emissions scandal broke out.

The scandal showed that carmakers had designed diesel cars in such a way that they were clean in test circumstances, but emitting more toxic emissions than the EU limit in normal situations.

Germany is one of several EU member states that is on the receiving end of a legal procedure for not achieving EU air quality standards.

The ruling also immediately had a negative effect on the German stock index DAX – possibly because German carmakers had for so long bet much of their innovation on diesel technology.

Environmental group ClientEarth hailed the ruling as a victory, as it meant that decisions from regional courts in Stuttgart and Duesseldorf, demanding diesel restrictions, will be upheld.

"This ruling gives long-awaited legal clarity that diesel restrictions are legally permissible and will unavoidably start a domino effect across the country, with implications for our other legal cases," said ClientEarth clean air lawyer Ugo Taddei.

Patchwork of low-emission zones

Low-emission zones banning certain types of vehicles often elicit strong emotions with owners of the vehicles in question.

Local authorities who introduce them, however say that they have no other option if they are to comply with EU air quality standards – in place to protect the health of their citizens.

However, there is no uniform approach across the bloc.

Centre-right Belgian MEP Ivo Belet earlier this month counted over 225 low-emission zones in fourteen EU member states.

"There is now a patchwork of more than 200 different vignettes, emission standards and monitoring models. This inevitably creates confusion among drivers, which is even worse in border regions," Belet said.

No EU involvement yet

Last week, the European Commission was asked in the daily press conference to comment on the upcoming court ruling.

But commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas noted that the EU had no authority over low-emission zones.

"We are not in charge of traffic regulations in cities," he said.

EU industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska recently told MEPs in a written statement that the commission was "currently not planning to launch a co-ordinated action at EU level" on low-emission zones – but that it was ready to discuss such a pan-European approach.

'Technology of the past'

Regardless, the ruling will be viewed in the context of the question: what future does diesel have in passenger cars in Europe?

In an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt last November, Bienkowska called diesel technology a "thing of the past".

MEPs asked the commission to explain how that opinion squares with the commission's self-proclaimed neutrality towards fuel technologies.

In its answer, the commission somewhat dodges the contradiction, saying that diesel combustion engines are "one of the technologies available to power vehicles".

"It is the choice of the manufacturers to produce the type of engines they consider appropriate, provided their vehicles meet the requirements set by the legislation," the commission said.

Diesel's decline

In recent years, diesel sales have been dropping, at least in Western Europe.

The most recent market report of the Brussels-based car industry lobby Acea showed that in the fifteen countries that have been an EU member since before 2004, the market share of diesel was shrinking. (Acea's report did not provide figures for the entire EU).

In the period January-September 2017, 45.7 percent of new passenger cars were powered by diesel – compared to 50.2 percent in the same period in 2016.

In Germany, the decline appears to be even more profound.

The share of diesel has seen a substantial drop last year (Photo: Clean Energy Wire)

According to data from the Federal Motor Transport Agency (KBA), in January 2018 only 33.3 percent of newly registered cars were diesel-powered.

More often than not, they are replaced by petrol cars. The share of purely electric vehicles in Germany is still only one percent.

Some carmakers have decided to phase out diesel passenger cars from their fleet.

Japanese carmaker Toyota and German carmaker Porsche have announced they would stop producing cars with diesel engines.

This month the FT reported that Italian-US carmaker Fiat-Chrysler would end diesel car production in 2022.

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