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This war on cars could get ugly

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App
Henrik Böhme
October 25, 2018

Driving bans, stricter emission rules and a hysterical debate over air pollution — this combination could permanently harm Germany's industrial icon. DW's Henrik Böhme asks whether the country really wants to do that.

Traffic jam in Berlin
Image: Imago/Frank Sorge

Will the fire brigade be forced to arrive by tram if diesel-powered fire engines are no longer allowed in residential areas? Do we want a return to the years of communist East Germany (GDR) where bureaucrats decided how mobile the public should be?

GDR citizens didn't need individual mobility, they argued. Instead, the proletariat mostly traveled on buses and trains. And thanks to years of underinvestment, the primitive Trabant and Wartburg cars were the only vehicles on the road.

In the Germany of today, the opponents of private transport are suddenly being listened to. Their enemy is the car. A hysterical debate has emerged about a new inner city plague, particulate pollution — or dust to you and me — that could lead to 100,000 diesel deaths. If these critics are to be believed, the car is a mass murderer!

Driving bans begin

One after another, German courts have begun issuing driving bans due to excessive pollution. At the same time, Brussels is busy ordering even lower emission limits, for vehicles at least. 

DW business editor Henrik Böhme
DW business editor Henrik Böhme

Even so, no one is asking how accurate these pollution measurements, which vary from city to city, are. Sometimes readings are taken on green land, other times on the walls of buildings, sometimes during daylight hours, other times not.

This confuses even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who one day is labeled the climate chancellor — the next, the chancellor of cars, and who is now as ambiguous as the car manufacturers. One day she promises that laws will be changed to prevent driving bans, the next she vows to adhere to strict pollution limits. After all, emissions targets are dictated by European Union law, she insists. 

Read more: Angela Merkel aims to ward off diesel car ban in Germany

The issue of particulate matter

Perhaps a few facts will help, even if we are living in a post-truth age. Between five and 300 tons of particulate matter falls to earth each day. It is whipped up by the wind and the sun, among other things. This makes measuring the dust terribly complicated.

Car exhaust fumes are responsible for only a small amount of the fine particulate matter measured in road traffic. Eighty-five percent of it is caused by the erosion of tires and brakes. This means bicycles are also fine-dust centrifuges.

Court imposes diesel ban on Berlin roads

Stricter pollution limits over the years mean modern cars emit fewer gases than ever. In fact, the air in our cities has never been so good. Does this really justify the continuing victimization of the automobile — or rather the campaign against individual mobility?

Read more: German government announces details of diesel agreement

One thing we must be clear about: The driving bans are just the beginning. Once the diesel engine has been finished off, the combustion engine will be next. Smokers will likely be next in the firing line, followed by fireplace owners. Wood burning stoves, usually found in the most affluent homes, create a lot of fine dust, especially if you burn the wrong type of wood.

And what will we do the next time the Sahara sand blows over the Mediterranean to Europe? Will it be dust DEFON 1? Will Greenpeace put up signs banning sand at the border? The debate really does appear to have lost touch with reality.

The 'clean' solution

The solution to the emissions issue has already been found. The electric car is quiet, clean and environmentally friendly. Only the wealthy can afford them, but no matter. It's just a shame these electric wonders have such a short life cycle.

The very latest model, Daimler's EQC, will be the first fully electric Mercedes. It'll go on sale next year priced at a mere €70,000 ($80,000).

Diesel dithers leave motorists in the lurch

Its battery weighs an incredible 650 kilograms (1,433 pounds), and the production of each one of these monster cells alone generates 12 to 16 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). The production of each car generates another seven tons. To achieve the same CO2 emissions, a fossil-fuel powered vehicle would have to drive 200,000 kilometers (124,274 miles).

To put it bluntly, the German car industry only has itself to blame for the position it finds itself in. The pampered children of politicians everywhere are now their whipping boys.

Yet when it's no longer just about cars but about what else can be banned, then we are taking the ax to the roots of Germany as an industrialized country. After that our individual freedoms are at stake — the fundament of our democratic order. That's something anyone who supports driving bans needs to seriously consider.

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App
Henrik Böhme Business editor focusing on international trade, cars, and finance@Henrik58