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Challenging Fridays for Future

November 29, 2019

A new group of auto enthusiasts has sprung up in Germany that sees itself as a more rational alternative to the young climate protesters flooding the streets. It wants to battle climate change — without giving up cars.

Christopher Grau, one of the founders of Fridays for Hubraum, poses in front of a car in his workshop.
Image: DW/B. Christofaro

It all started with a disgruntled Facebook post in late September. Christopher Grau, an expert car mechanic, was fed up with what he sees as hysteria around climate change, which he felt was being exacerbated by the constant protests.

His post found many people who agree with him, mostly fellow car enthusiasts.

"We asked ourselves: ‘How many car drivers are we out here? Let's just make a Facebook group," he said. "It totally escalated."

Within a few days, the group had racked up more than half a million likes. Its name: "Fridays for Hubraum." That is German for "Fridays for Cubic Capacity."

An alternative to Fridays for Future?

The name is an obvious reference to Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement, which has struck a chord in Germany. On November 29, Germans poured into the street for the fourth time this year to join a global strike for climate action.

For these mostly young protesters, the government's new package aimed at combating climate change, which envisages more expensive flights, cheaper train tickets and a CO2 traffic charge, is too little too late.

Read more: Marches worldwide ahead of UN talks

Climate protesters rally in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for the fourth global Fridays for Future strike tis year.
Protesters rallied at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for the fourth global Fridays for Future strike this year Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. MacDougall

Sustainable cars

Grau's movement brands itself as a rational response to Fridays for Future. He says it is not a climate-change denial group, as many people, including a wave of now-expelled far-right members, thought in the beginning.

Fridays for Hubraum also wants to protect the climate, he says, but without forcing Germans to give up their private automobility.

That means no taxes on CO2 usage, no low emission zones in city centers and no speed limit on the highways —  although traffic causes almost 21% of all CO2 emissions in Germany.

Why not focus on improving technologies that make cars more sustainable instead, asks Grau. Or work harder to target those sectors with higher CO2 emissions, such as the energy industry.

When cars are a necessity

Visiting Grau's car workshop in Nordkirchen, a small municipality in western Germany, it becomes clear why cars are so important to him. It goes beyond mere professional passion. In Nordkirchen, as in most smaller German cities, cars are ingrained in the culture.

Grau's "Beast Factory” is about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the closest train station. But the only direct bus connection is a "Bürgerbus," a minibus citizens have organized to make up for the gaps in public transport. Volunteer drivers serve the route every two hours, going past sheep grazing on fields, quiet neighborhoods and, of course, a driving school.

Christopher Grau, one of the founders of Fridays for Hubraum, works on a car in his tuning garage.
Tuning cars is Christopher Grau's profession, but also a passion Image: DW/B. Christofaro

"You need a car here, or you can't get out,” Grau said.

Whether Fridays for Hubraum supporters want to protect their cars out of pure necessity or because they want to maintain a hobby is up for debate.

But Grau says his issue with climate protesters is that they single out car drivers when many Germans do not have an alternative to get to work or go to the supermarket.

Read more: Tomorrow's transportation will be electric and shared

Tackling the CO2 tax

In his opinion, a CO2 traffic charge, as was planned in the latest government climate package, would make little difference and hurt only the most vulnerable.

"The people who drive cars as a hobby won't be bothered at all by the three extra cents they have to pay per liter. The low earners are the ones who will feel it,” he said.

Read more: German advisers recommend CO2 pricing as 'central instrument'

The main suggestion made by Grau's group is that alternative fuels like hydrogen fuel or biodiesel should be adopted. They are more climate-friendly and work in combustion engines.

Currently, only 5% of fuel consumers use alternative sources, according to the German Energy Agency. Critics blame the government for prioritizing electric cars to the expense of other options.

Hydrogen hits the road

Protests being mulled

These are ideas the 563,000-plus members of  Future for Hubraum discuss only in their private Facebook group and with the media.

Now, Grau is thinking of making the jump from Facebook to the streets. The administrators started recruiting organizers in each state to plan meetings — and maybe more.

"If the politics don't work, we will have to think about doing protests,” he said. "But it has to be very orderly, very civilized.”

The car enthusiasts' movement currently has more than five times the followers that the German Fridays for Future page has.

But only the turnout at a demonstration would show how much of a competitor they actually are for Greta Thunberg.


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Beatrice Christofaro
Beatrice Christofaro German-Brazilian multimedia reporter focused on the environment