Germany is among nine EU countries facing fines for breaking the law on air pollution. Environment ministers have been called to Brussels to explain their plans for tackling this — under threat of being taken to court.
It's the very last chance for nine European Union member states, whose representatives have been summoned to Brussels to explain how they intend to stop breaching EU air pollution levels.
The environment ministers have a lot of explaining to do on January 30 when they face the EU's Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella.
German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks is among those who have been called, after receiving a warning letter.
If the commission is not convinced by their statements, it will take the breaching member states to court.
The EU introduced limits for particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2010. But many member states — especially in major cities — regularly have air pollution far beyond these limits.
The German southern city of Stuttgart, for instance, has recorded levels of 82 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter of air — that's twice as much as the allowed threshold of 40 micrograms.
Showdown in Brussels
"It's very good that Vella has summoned the ministers to Brussels and put pressure on them," said Anne Stauffer, of the Health and Environment Alliance, an umbrella organization of environment and health organizations concerned with the health effects of environmental changes in the EU.
This problem had been known for a while, she added — what has been lacking is the political will to actually do something about it.
The European Commission already addressed a dozen EU member states at the beginning of 2017, among them Germany, warning them to stick to EU limits. They are now potentially facing fines.
Infringement procedures have already been initiated for Poland and Bulgaria, while Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia have been allowed extra time to explain their case.
Tuesday is their chance to explain to the commission how they intend to curb air pollution.
And it's entirely up to the individual nations to decide how they do it, European Commission spokesperson Enrico Brivio told DW.
"It's not up to us to dictate actions to be taken," he said.
The commission will then discuss whether these actions are enough to suspend proceedings for now.
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'Empty-handed' German environment minister?
Environmentalists doubt Germany's plans are going to convince the commission.
"Hendricks is going to show up empty-handed in Brussels," said Dietmar Oeliger, head of transport policy at Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union Germany (NABU).
In a letter sent to Vella on January 9, which DW has obtained, Germany's environment and transport ministries have already laid out plans to curb emissions: An "immediate action program for clean air 2017 to 2020" is supposed to do the trick.
This scheme would see public buses running on diesel fuel be equipped with exhaust-scrubbing systems, more charging points for e-cars, and overall strengthening of e-mobility.
But that's not going to be enough, according to Jens Hilgenberg of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND).
Although the program will have long- or medium-term effects, it won't ease pollution levels right away, he said. In order to stay within the limits, Germany would have to change technical components — or incentivize a change in its citizens' behavior, he added.
'Diesel problem hasn't been solved'
Experts agree these high nitrogen oxide levels in Germany and other countries like France are due to cars running on diesel. Diesel trucks already have exhaust-scrubbing systems that actually work — as opposed to those in cars.
"The diesel problem hasn't been solved yet," said Julia Poliscanova, manager of clean vehicles and air quality with the Brussels-based nongovernmental organization Transport & Environment.
"It's really important to force car makers to improve the new Euro 5 and Euro 6 diesel models," she said. Many of these cars have been the most egregious emissions violations.
"They have to refit these cars, or take the models off the market where that's not possible," she added.
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If Germany committed to such measures, this would have huge positive effects on air quality in all of Europe, Poliscanova added.
"[Germany has] the largest automaker industry, and they also certify most of the cars for the EU market. They have the power to actually change something," she told DW, adding it was just a question whether the German government had the courage to stand up to the auto industry.
If one were to decide against retrofitting, then a ban on driving diesel cars should be put in place, BUND's Hilgenberg said.
'Germany should lead by example'
It's clear these changes won't happen overnight, said Stauffer of the Health and Environment Alliance, "but it's important the commission now gets the point across that this foot-dragging exercise is not going to fly."
The commission had, for instance, repeatedly pointed out that diesel cannot be subsidized to be made cheaper than regular gasoline, said Dorothee Saar of the group Environmental Action Germany (DUH).
This difference in price encouraged many citizens to buy a diesel car instead — which translated to even worse air quality.
German politicians have been dragging their feet on such policies. "But an economically strong country like Germany should lead by example," said Saar. She hopes the commission will plan to follow through after the meeting on Tuesday.
NABU's Oeliger agrees. "It would be fatal to suspend the proceedings — the European Commission needs to keep up the pressure, or it will lose credibility."
Germany pays up — and that's it?
If this infringement does make it to court, only then will be decided which fines member states have to pay, up to several thousand euros per day. "It could definitely cost a pretty penny."
Stauffer doesn't believe Germany would take its chances. Until now, with similar infringement proceedings, there haven't been any fines — because the proceeding itself was enough to push for changes. "At least the public is now upping pressure by saying, 'Enough is enough!'"
BUND's Hilgenberg is less optimistic. "Nothing has happened since the emissions scandal [in 2015]," he said. "New diesel cars which you can now buy at car dealerships are still not in line with emission limits. I do think it's entirely possible that nothing will change at all."
Until now, the German government had decided to play the waiting game. And Hilgenberg doesn't rule out that Germany will keep playing that game.