Environmental Action Germany, or Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), has Germany's auto industry – and politicians – on the run.
A relatively small environmental and consumer protection nonproft, DUH has 100 employees and an annual budget of €8 million ($9.9 million). Its adversary is an industry synonymous with German engineering prowess worth €400 billion euros a year, and which employs 800,000 people.
But since the Dieselgate scandal broke, DUH has tenaciously taken on not just German carmakers, but also the German government, which it claims is in bed with them. And this tiny group could now be set to change the face of cities in Germany and beyond as it presses for diesel bans in urban centers.
Initially uncovered in tests emissions tests by research institute ICCT in the United States, DUH's own tests confirmed that also in Europe, the average diesel car emits six times the permitted level of nitrogen oxides (NOx).
"That amounts to many thousands of cases of intentional personal injury or death," DUH director Jürgen Resch told DW. "In our view, the chief executives of German, European and international car companies are responsible."
A European Environmental Agency analysis indicated that about 10,000 people die prematurely due to nitrogen dioxide every year in Germany – and about 75,000 in Europe. "Four times as many people die from diesel exhaust than from traffic accidents," Resch added.
Since 2010, European Union regulations prohibit average annual outdoor nitrogen oxide levels from exceeding 40 micrograms per cubic meter.
"We assume that the limit is still being exceeded in around 70 cities," Ute Dauert from the German Environment Agency told DW.
Fighting it out in the courts
Financed largely by the federal government and other government entities, DUH also receives funding from the EU and environmental foundations. Also private donations, including €50,000 per year from Japanese carmaker Toyota, help fill its coffers.
For the air pollution problem, DUH points its finger squarely at German automakers, because the exhaust filters on diesel cars don't work as they're supposed to.
Which is why it has sued authorities in the cities of Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, among other German cities, for failing to act on air pollution. Local courts ruled that local authorities must act to bring emissions within legal limits, including imposing driving bans if necessary.
Authorities argued that such bans would be illegal, and brought the case to Germany's Federal Administrative Court. A ruling on the over the legality of driving ban – initially postponed – is now expected Tuesday.
"The government isn't doing anything – it's actually fighting for dirty cars to be allowed to drive in cities," Resch says. "We want to finally enforce these limits in Germany – which are far too lax in any case – and end the harm being inflicted on thousands of people."
If the DUH prevails, it will be a massive blow to carmakers. Sales of diesel cars are already suffering regardless.
Meanwhile, the German government has also been coming under growing pressure from the EU Commission, which now plans to impose fines on the country for failing to get its air pollution under control.
Carmakers called to pay up
But it is the DUH that Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the Center of Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, describes as the German auto industry's "most hated enemy."
The carmarkers don't question DUH's emissions tests. However, the manufacturers vigorously defend themselves against charges of manipulation. Even where there is evidence of the use of "defeat devices" – which result in lower emissions levels under testing conditions than on the road – they deny these are illegal.
Asked by DW, Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW declined to comment on DUH's work. But Eckehart Rotter, press spokesperson for the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), stressed "the considerable willingness of the German automotive industry to contribute to the improvement of air quality, in particular through free software updates of more than 5 million cars."
Rotter added that he opposed the "scandalization and a dramatization of possible health risks."
The DUH is among those demanding not just software updates, but also hardware retrofitting of diesel cars already on the road – at the carmakers' expense.
It says with new catalytic converters, emissions could be kept within legal limits, significantly improving air quality. But carmakers are against footing the bill. Many fear the impacts such a move would have on the motor of the German economy.
Michael Barczok, a medical doctor with the federal association of pulmonology, compares the dangers of nitrogen oxide to those of smoking, and says he is shocked by the carmarkers' refusal to fund retrofitting.
He says the costs would be "a drop in the ocean when you look at the profits the auto companies generate" – as well as the suffering associated with exhaust fumes.
"Many people are getting ill prematurely, retire from working life, need early pensions and die prematurely," Barczok told DW.
Barczok says he's grateful to DUH. "Despite all appeals from us lung specialists, nothing happened," he told DW. "Now, with the court rulings, we finally have some movement."
"This is an invaluable help."
Failure of politics
Dudenhöffer too welcomes DUH's refusal to stand by and as "environmental regulations are undermined and ignored." But he says the nongovernmental organization should not have had to step in and take on monitoring tasks that should be the government's responsibility.
"It's a disgrace for Germany, our system and the credibility of German politics," he told DW.
Wasilis von Rauch, national chairman of the environmentally focused German driving association Verkehrsclubs Deutschland (VCD) also chimed in, calling the government's failure to regulate the industry an "indictment of politics."
Politicians, too, have paid lip service to the value of DUH's work. Oliver Krischer, an emissions expert with the Greens in German Parliament, said "With its own emissions measurements and court cases, the DUH is pushing the German government forward."
But Resch calls the attitude of senior government officials extremely worrying: "They say: What you're doing is great. Hopefully you'll be successful and get a clear court ruling, then maybe we can do something. Without a ruling, unfortunately we can't do anything. The resistance from industry is so great."
Resch is adamant that German carmakers have far too much influence over government, and says Chancellor Angela Merkel has only nurtured this relationship. "We see in many instances outright orders coming from corporate headquarters," Resch told DW.
Resch wants to see politicians clean house to free themselves of ties to business, "enforce law and order against big business interests, to begin regulating and actually punish violations."
But as far as the offensive against the companies themselves goes, the diesel scandal is just the start. Resch is also looking to the European antitrust authorities, which have already searched several corporate headquarters over suspicions of anti-competitive collusion between Germany's major carmakers. "I'm curious what will happen in a year or two," Resch says.