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Opinion: Fear starting to rule the German economy

Cars, and diesel vehicles in particular, are German moralists' No.1 enemy at present. There's much talk about bans and quotas. To what extent will this lead towards a planned economy, DW's Henrik Böhme asks.

Who actually governs Germany? German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of course. Or is it rather a man by the name of Jürgen Resch, a public administration scientist without a degree and head of a 270-member association issuing warnings. Resch is managing director of German environmental pressure group DUH, which is currently making life hard for the domestic auto industry, namely a sector which generates about a quarter of the country's total industrial revenues. And an industry that to no small extent must be blamed for motivating Resch to do what he's doing.

Good old Mr. Resch, who's been keeping administrative courts between Stuttgart and Hamburg on their toes, has those nefarious four-wheel polluters in his sights and has made himself the carmakers' biggest foe. Most recently, the DUH advocated slapping a 110-million-euro ($130-million) fine on Porsche. But let's no longer talk about Resch as he's not really important and because the real problem lies elsewhere.

Read more: Porsche hit by recall over emissions cheating

This is how we've come to tick  

The real problem is a phenomenon called German angst. This country, which produced outstanding inventors and engineers and used to believe in progress, has meanwhile developed full-blown skepticism towards anything progressive which can also be frightening. Everything with even a whiff of progress about it is viewed extremely critically. Some call this process technology impact analysis. Invariably, people point to possible risks first before talking about the usefulness of a thing, if they talk about that at all.

Such an approach can easily lead to overly protective parenting or bans on diesel cars in selected areas.

Because this is how we Germans tick. A headline reading "Diesel causes hundreds of thousands of deaths" is silently accepted with no questions asked. It gets spread and exploited by lobby groups such as our DUH friends.

When mad cow disease hit Europe, people feared there might be hundreds of thousands of deaths. Eventually, only 150 people died within a decade. Whenever a new case of avian flu is reported, the media, including the German media, mull the possibility of a huge amount of casualties.

DW business editor Henrik Böhme

DW business editor Henrik Böhme

Coming back to diesel cars and with it to nitrogen oxide emissions and particulate matter, the truth is that traffic-related nitrogen oxide emissions in Germany have decreased by 70 percent over the past 25 years. But just because there's this German angst, the legal limits for these same emissions have become ever more ambitious. The self-proclaimed saviors of clean air have targeted cars knowing how much Germans love them, and they'd love to ban all diesel vehicles right away if they could. They will settle for nothing less.

Whatever next

Some 34,000 people in Germany die of polluted air each year, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry have estimated (note: estimated, because there's no causal evidence). The main culprit is agriculture, believed to account for 45 percent of all deaths. Dear farmers, brace yourselves!

Read more: Diesel car ban likely in Stuttgart

You'd have to ban smoking as three cigarettes cause 10 times as many particulates as an old diesel car running for 30 minutes. You'd have to ban all chimneys without fine particulate air filters. You'd have to ban inland waterway transport. The 30,000 vessels navigating the Rhine river annually emit 49 tons of particulate matter, making up 14 percent of the total particulate emissions a town like Dusseldorf has to grapple with. You might even have to ban cycling because of tire abrasion also causing particulates. Not to mention New Year fireworks, barbecues using charcoal and so on and so forth.

Wake up, policymakers!

What are you waiting for, dear Mr. Resch! Fire away, introduce a planned economy, prohibit this and demand that! Turn this nation into a German China where something like that might work. Tell BMW, Daimler and VW exactly which cars they have to produce in the future! But hopefully you have a plan for the safe disposal of depleted electric car batteries!

Policymakers should in the meantime scrutinize the dubious business model of the DUH activists. The anti-diesel crusaders have basically made sure they're in control of what's happening, not the lawmakers. But the DUH is a NON-governmental organization, founded in the 1970s to collect donations.

You could strip them of their common-good status and their right of legal action. That would return control to policymakers and enable them to deal with the problems at hand. Though, of course, the politicians, in turn, should do their job properly, without grubby wheeling and dealing with leading executives in the car industry.

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