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Opinion: Dieselgate one year on

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau
August 2, 2018

A summit that took place in Berlin at the height of the so-called diesel crisis in 2017 appeared to herald the start of resolving the toxic issues at hand. But a year down the road, the can is still being kicked.

Symbol of VW
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte

Actually, the message from the courts is pretty unequivocal and one would have to be quite deaf to miss it. They ruled that if policy makers at the national, state and local levels do not do something against nitrogen dioxide pollution in several dozen German cities, driving bans will be imposed, following the examples of Hamburg and Stuttgart.

And experts agree: The problem can only be solved by upgrading older diesel vehicles, something that is technically complex and expensive and the car manufacturers are loth to pay for.

This is a message that politicians like to avoid, but the moment of truth is coming.

Many measures, little effect

The "diesel summit" in Berlin last August, at the height of the crisis and in the middle of the Bundestag election campaign, had a long list of policy proposals and brought together politicians, business leaders and experts to see how to implement them.

Jens Thurau (DW)
DW's Jens Thurau

"We want to avoid driving bans at all costs," was the message.

Since then, nearly 3 million out of some 5.3 million diesel cars have been equipped with state-of-the-art emissions control software. A €1 billion ($1.2 billion) emergency program to equip cities with e-buses has also been initiated, while 200,000 diesel drivers have switched to newer models, helped by a purchase premium.

Fly in the ointment

All that remains now is retrofitting and it is here that we run into difficulties.

The government (actually all recent governments when it comes to environmental and climate change) has dragged its feet. The Environment Ministry is pushing for technical retrofitting, while the Ministry of Transport has failed to get the carmakers on board.

The chairman of Volkswagen said in 2017 diesel exhaust tests involving monkeys were "totally incomprehensible"
The chairman of Volkswagen said in 2017 diesel exhaust tests involving monkeys were "totally incomprehensible" Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Probst

These are the same companies that had no problem fooling their customers with elaborate software tricks.

And, as is often the case, Chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself somewhere in the middle, waiting.

Though she now says that she wants clarity on the matter by the end of September, it is very unlikely that she will expend much political capital getting it as her smaller sister party, the CSU, is far from a reliable partner.

It is in effect a government failure. What needs to be done is obvious. Experts know it, the courts have ruled. But politicians have their own backsides to worry about and ultimately what is the upside for politicians? Meanwhile, democracy unravels bit by bit.


Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau