Will Germany use autobahn speed limits to cut carbon emissions? | News | DW | 22.01.2019
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Will Germany use autobahn speed limits to cut carbon emissions?

A national commission has laid out a number of steps to help Germany meet EU emissions targets. Though desperately needed, they will face resistance from citizens and the country's influential auto industry.

The German government tasked a commission known as the National Platform on the Future of Mobility with finding ways to lower the country's carbon emissions in order to meet EU targets.

Read more: Germany awarded 'shameful' negative climate prize at COP24

Although a final report is not due to be published until late March, draft proposals seen by news agencies on Friday are likely to face fierce resistance from citizens, industryand politicians fearful of angering any of them.   

Among the proposals featured in the paper were a fuel tax hike from 2023 onward, an end to tax breaks for diesel cars, electric and hybrid vehicle quotas, and a 130 kmh (80 mph) speed limit on freeways — which is the norm in other EU countries.

Speaking of the concept of limiting how fast Germans can drive on their famously speedy autobahns would seem a non-starter, and that point was made by Ulrich Lange, deputy chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU parliamentary group, "I don't think the suggestion of a speed limit is expedient."

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Sensationalized and out of context

Commission members complained that the publication of their working paper misrepresented an early phase of their work and had been made public in a sensationalized manner lacking proper context.

Aware of the unpopularity of such suggestions, the commission noted: "Not every instrument and every measure will be accepted. It will take political deftness, diplomatic skill and a willingness to compromise to achieve the climate change goals."

The Federal Ministry of Transport was quick to point out that the report represented "initial brainstorming" and that none of the measures had been "discussed, agreed to, or passed."

Germany could face hefty EU fines if it fails to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and observers see the transport sector, alongside energy and housing, as a key to meeting emissions reduction targets.

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Transport emissions on the rise

Transport emissions in the country have not gone down since 1990. Instead, they have been going up due to increased overall car sales as well as that of more powerful sports cars and larger SUVs. Germany's Federal Statistical Office said that in 2017 automobile traffic was responsible for 115 million tons of CO2 emissions — 6.4 percent more than in 2010.  

Beyond environmental groups, the commission is stacked with a number of members representing the rail, metal and automobile industries as well as automaker Volkswagen.

The issues of speed limits and fuel tax hikes are highly unpopular in Germany — not least due to the work of the country's powerful automobile lobby — and reactions to Friday's publication of the working paper were swift.

Frank Sitta from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), for instance, was livid: "After the ridiculous diesel bans, now they want a speed limit, quotas on electric vehicles and fuel tax hikes. That will just make mobility in Germany even more expensive."

More than speed limits

Beyond its suggestions for cutting automobile emissions the commission's paper underscores the necessity of strengthening public transport, as well as facilitating bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

Commenting on the lack of progress Germany has made in changing its approach to environmentally sustainable mobility, Greenpeace transport expert Tobias Astrup decried the fact that, "We have made absolutely no headway in terms of climate protection and transport since 1990."

js/sms (dpa, Reuters)

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