POST TIME: 3 August, 2017 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 2 August, 2017 10:07:24 PM
Diesel at crossroads as Germany’s car bosses, politicians meet

Diesel at crossroads as Germany’s car bosses, politicians meet

Environmental activists wearing respiratory masks against air pollution perform in front of the Interior Ministry, venue of a so-called diesel summit yesterday in Berlin. German government officials and automakers meet to discuss the future of diesel vehicles, after a nearly two-year saga of scandal spread from Volkswagen to others in the sector. AFP photo

AFP, BERLIN:  Bosses of Germany’s powerful car industry and top politicians meet yesterday on the fate of diesel engines, as the sector faces an existential threat after a colossal pollution cheating scandal and new allegations of collusion.

With major cities also eyeing partial bans on diesel vehicles to fight deadly smog, more than 800,000 jobs hang in the balance as carmakers desperately need a strategy.

Two months before a general election, both parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-left grand ruling coalition are in no mood to mollycoddle an industry that is fast losing popularity.

Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, a member of Merkel’s Bavarian allies CSU, said yesterday that “the automobile industry has steered itself onto difficult terrain”.

“I find it dreadful that the ‘Cars made in Germany’ brand has been dragged into such a situation,” he told Passauer Neue Presse daily.

Merkel was more nuanced, as she noted the huge number of jobs at stake.

“The car industry is of strategic importance ... it must be strong and innovative but also honest. So it’s about criticising what needs to be criticised, but to do so while bearing in mind that it’s a strategically important industry in Germany,” said her spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer on Monday.

The first cracks in the oft-vaunted sector emerged in September 2015, when Volkswagen admitted installing illegal devices in millions of vehicles world-wide to rig pollution emissions readings.

But suspicions of similar cheating have since widened to other German carmakers, including Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler and BMW.

In July, Spiegel magazine heaped on further pressure as it published details of a VW letter to German and European competition authorities which it said showed that auto giants colluded on technology, suppliers, costs, sales and markets since the 1990s.

Adding to the clouds hanging over the industry, a court in Stuttgart—the home city of Mercedes and Porsche—ruled that only a partial ban on diesel vehicles would be effective at clearing the air of poisonous nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

Germany has already been warned by the European Commission over its air quality, and now public opinion is starting to swing in favour of outlawing diesel.

A survey commissioned by Greenpeace found that 57 per cent of Germans back such a ban in cities with poor air quality.

On Wednesday, Greenpeace activists hung a banner screaming “Welcome to Fort NOx” at the transport ministry as protesters marched outside, forcing organisers of the diesel meeting to move it to the interior ministry.

The problem is that the industry had plumped for diesel as it spews out less climate-altering carbon dioxide than petrol-burning motors.

While electric cars are viewed as green, electricity generation in Germany is not always clean—with some 40 per cent still stemming from coal.

For these reasons, Merkel herself has warned against “demonising diesel”.

But the flip side of the technology is that it emits more NOx, contributing to the formation of smog and fine particles that cause respiratory and cardiac problems.

For now, Germany’s auto giants are hoping to ward off a ban by offering software patches to cut harmful emissions, buying time as they ramp up electric car development.

Politicians at yesterday’s meeting will demand industry to bear all costs of any technical fix and give incentives for car-owners to switch to cleaner models, sources told the news agency.

Some 15 million diesel vehicles are in circulation in Germany, and latest data show they are still popular—they made up 40.5 per cent of vehicles sold in July.

With general election due on September 24, the scandal has given additional ammunition to Merkel’s challengers.

Former environment minister Juergen Trittin of the Greens accused the car industry and the government of collusion.

“At the head of the cartel is the chancellor,” he charged.

Both industry and politics are to blame in the view of Stefan Bratzel from the Center of Automotive Management, based outside of the western city of Cologne.

While carmakers had hurt themselves through their emissions cheating, “the culture of looking the other way and years of talks that are only symbolic have also indirectly hurt the automobile industry hard,” said Bratzel.