On Jan. 1, the European Union’s new clean air laws come into effect. What promises to give more Germans a breath of fresh air has the country of car lovers up in arms.
Soon a thing of the past?
Germany is a country of cars. The automobile industry is famous for its quality products and in particular German men are often accused of loving their cars more than anything else in their lives.
A European Union Directive could put an end to this -- or at least hamper this loving relationship.
In just a few days, from Jan. 1, 2005, Directive 1999/30/EG takes effect. It places limits on the air levels of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants, such as soot particles emitted by diesel vehicles. German cities and municipalities will have to control their air quality and take countermeasures if the toxic levels are too high.
Federal Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin urged state and local authorities to increase their efforts to reduce air pollutants.
"The government has done its homework," he said. "Now it's up to the states and especially the municipalities to fulfill their responsibility toward the health of their citizens." Battling poor air quality
In June 2004, a federal resolution indicated that without drastic measures, some 70 to 120 German municipalities could expect to exceed the EU limits. These districts had to present air quality plans of action to the EU by the end of this year.
According to Jens Metzger from the German Cities Council, those urban areas affected were "confident" that they would comply with the provisions. He said various possibilities were being considered.
"The strategies range from replacing old busses, selective driving bans for diesel-powered trucks to better traffic light systems for less stop-and-go traffic," Metzger said. "But all want to ensure as low a threshold of cuts as possible."
The new limits stipulate that so-called particulate matter, the concentration of fine dust in the air, cannot exceed 50 micrograms per cubic meter on more than 35 days of the year. This will be a challenge for large cities like Berlin, which exceeded these levels by far in previous years.
The new directive also gives people living near heavily traveled streets the legal mechanism to sue their municipality if the air they’re breathing isn’t clean enough. Metzger said it was still unclear whether this will lead to a wave of class-action lawsuits.
Ensuring individual mobility
Germany’s powerful automobile association ADAC is worried that the new laws could impair mobility.
Traffic jam on a highway near Munich
"All measures against air pollution can only take hold if they also apply to the main sources," said ADAC’s vice-president for transportation, Erhard Oehm. Authorities could not put all eggs in one basket.
"Since cars with gasoline engines hardly and diesel-powered cars only marginally contribute to the emissions, this has to be considered accordingly," said Oehm. "Individual mobility must continue to be ensured by all the measures affecting road traffic."
According to Oehm, speed limits were not a viable alternative, as they had in the past hardly led to a decrease in air pollutants. Closing inner cities to traffic should only be considered in extreme situations, he said. More intelligent traffic control, such as a progressive stoplight system, would be more effective, he said. A viable alternative
The background of the EU Directive is the simple fact that these particulate materials are harmful to health.
"Respiratory and cardiovascular diseases can to a high degree be traced back to inhaled fine dust," Trittin said. "Especially in metropolitan areas, hundreds and thousands of people fall ill for this reason every year, and many cases are fatal."
One viable alternative is busses, taxis and cars, which run on natural gas, a possibility also supported by ADAC. These vehicles do not pose a problem with respect to particulates or nitrogen oxide. Also, biogenious fuels are exempted from Germany’s high petroleum tax.
According to figures by the Federal Association of the German Gas Industry, some 27,000 natural gas vehicles were on German roads in 2004. This marked a 40 percent increase to the previous year. At the same time, the German gas industry opens three new natural gas stations -- per week.
Evening traffic in Berlin
Natural gas is one solution to tackle the measures imposed by the EU Directive. The next obstacle approaches, though. In 2010, strict emission limits for nitrogen oxides, a pollutant emitted primarily by cars and trucks and a precursor to ozone, come into effect. Then, German drivers will face even more restrictions in their loving relationships to their cars.