Diesel Vehicles in Germany: A Thing of the Past?

By Kaitlin Allen

Climate Change and Global Warming are pressing issues in Europe and around the globe.[1] Vehicle emissions are a significant contributor to climate change.[2] Diesel vehicles were presented as being a cleaner energy source than gasoline because they produce lower levels of carbon dioxide.[3] However, diesel vehicles also release high levels of other pollutants into the air which can lower air quality.[4] The European Union adopted clean air regulations that were designed to decrease the amount of air pollution in member countries.[5] However, these regulations have been ignored in many instances.[6] In 2018, Germany allowed environmental groups to sue cities for failing to enforce European Union air quality standards.[7] Cities have begun enforcing the standards through bans on older models of diesel automobiles because the older cars typically have higher emission levels than newer models.[8] These bans have been controversial and have been opposed by the auto industry as well as Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.[9]

Cars that run on diesel make up a large portion of the vehicles in Europe because governments there highly subsidized diesel as way to combat climate change.[10] In Germany in 2016, 46% of new vehicles sold had a diesel engine in them.[11] Vehicles that used diesel fuel had been billed as being more eco-friendly because they produce less greenhouse gases than cars that run on gasoline.[12] However, diesel vehicles release more pollutants into the air which can have adverse health impacts.[13]  The chemicals released by burning diesel fuel have been linked to heart and lung disease.[14]

The European Union has established air quality standards for its member countries.[15] However, Germany has largely not abided by them.[16] In May of 2018, Germany was one of seven countries that were referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union for violating the limits on air pollution and for not restricting certain types of vehicles.[17] It is estimated that only 2.7 million of the 15 million diesel vehicles in Germany meet the current European Union standards.[18] If Germany does not take steps to improve the air quality, it could face heavy fines.[19]

Frustrated with Germany’s lack of action to improve its air quality, environmental groups began suing local governments to get them to enforce the standards.[20] One way that cities have been improving air quality is through banning older model diesel vehicles.[21] Older vehicles typically put out more pollutants than newer models, which can decrease the air quality.[22]  In February of 2018, Germany’s highest administrative court ruled that these bans were permitted.[23] The ruling stated that only “older models with the highest emissions” could be banned.[24] The court found that in many cases the bans on older models of diesel cars were the only way for cities to meet the European Union standards.[25] Some cities resisted implementing bans and argued that the European Union standards could only be enforced on a federal level.[26]

Emissions have been a controversial issue in Europe since the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal in 2015.[27] Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions tests.[28] The company installed software in its vehicles that could sense when the cars were undergoing an emissions test and improved the vehicle’s emissions compared to what they would otherwise be.[29] The company stated that as many as 8 million vehicles in Europe have the software designed to defeat the tests.[30] The company was fined $1.2 billion dollars by German prosecutors in June of 2018 as a result of the scandal.[31] The government proposed software updates that would keep vehicles at the emission levels that they were testing at, rather than their road levels.[32] Environmental groups say that the software updates have not been effective at reducing pollution.[33]

The bans on diesel vehicles are not universally popular. Angela Merkel has opposed the bans.[34] Merkel viewed the bans as putting an unfair burden on those who drove older diesel vehicles and said that the cost should be put on the car companies and not on consumers.[35] In November of 2018, the German government intervened on a national level and weakened many of the state level diesel bans.[36] The German government has been criticized for its close relationship with the auto industry, which makes up a huge portion of the German economy.[37] Diesel technology alone employs as many as 800,000 German workers.[38]

The bans have had significant impacts on consumers. Those who drove older model diesel vehicles have seen their resale value plummet.[39]  The government has proposed a trade in program that would allow owners of vehicles to trade their car in for a discount on a vehicle that meets the emission standards.[40] The government also proposed plans to have current non- compliant cars retrofitted so that they can meet standards.[41] Neither the trade in option or the retrofitting option has received much support from the German auto industry.[42]

            The bans on older diesel vehicles across Germany are having an impact on diesel sales. Sales fell almost 20% last year.[43] Diesel is not just falling out of favor in Germany.[44] Great Britain and France are aiming to stop selling “new diesel vehicles by 2040.”[45] Other European cities such as Madrid and Athens want to “ban all diesel vehicles by 2025”[46]

            The health risks and air pollution created by diesel has caused it to fall out of favor.[47] The Volkswagen emissions scandal certainly did not help with public trust.[48] What the ultimate fate of diesel vehicles will be is unknown. However, in Germany, the birth place of diesel, the local level bans on older model diesel vehicles are having a significant impact on their popularity.[49]

[1] See, What Are Climate Change and Global Warming? ,WWF, https://www.wwf.org.uk/climate-change-and-global-warming (last visited Jan.12, 2019); Climate Change, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/energy-climate-change-environment/topics/climate-change_en (last visited Jan. 12, 2019).

[2] Global Climate Change, NASA, https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/ (last visited Jan. 12, 2019).

[3] Paul Hockenos, End of the Road: Are Diesel Cars on the Way Out in Europe?, YaleEnviornment360 (Apr. 12, 2018),  https://e360.yale.edu/features/end-of-the-road-are-diesel-cars-on-the-way-out-in-europe.

[4] Id.

[5] Council Directive 2008/50, 2008 O.J. (L 152) 1 (EC) https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32008L0050.

[6] See, European Commission Press Release, Air Quality: Commission takes action to protect citizens from air pollution (May 17, 2018).

[7] Andreas Cremer, German Cities free to ban older diesel cars immediately, Reuters (May 18, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-emissions/german-cities-free-to-ban-older-diesel-cars-immediately-idUSKCN1IJ1W7.

[8] See, Melissa Eddy, German Court Rules Cities Can Ban Vehicles to Tackle Air Pollution, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/27/business/energy-environment/germany-diesel-air-pollution.html.

[9] Cremer, supra note 7.

[10] Hockenos, supra note 3.

[11] Percentage share of new passenger cars in Europe with diesel engines in 2016, by country, Statista,   https://www.statista.com/statistics/425113/eu-car-sales-share-of-diesel-engines-by-country/ (last visited Jan. 13. 2019).

[12] Cremer, supra note 7.

[13] Id.

[14] Damien Carrington, 38,000 people a year die early because of diesel emissions testing failures, The Guardian (May 15, 2017),  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/15/diesel-emissions-test-scandal-causes-38000-early-deaths-year-study.

[15] Council Directive 2008/50, supra note 5.

[16] European Commission Press Release, supra note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] Diesel ban approved for German cities to cut pollution, BBC (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/business-43211946/.

[19] Brigitte Osterath, EU takes Germany to court over air pollution, DW (May 17, 2018), https://www.dw.com/en/eu-takes-germany-to-court-over-air-pollution/a-42351552.

[20] Cremer, supra note 7.

[21] Eddy, supra note 8.

[22] Diesel ban approved for German cities to cut pollution, supra note 18.

[23] Eddy, supra note 8.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Russel Hotten, Volkswagen: The scandal explained., BBC (Dec. 10, 2015), https://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772.

[28] Hotten, supra note 27.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Charles Riley, Germany fines Volkswagen $1.2 billion over diesel scandal, CNN (June 13, 2018),   https://money.cnn.com/2018/06/13/investing/volkswagen-fine-germany/index.html.

[32] Eddy, supra note 8.

[33] Id.

[34] Angela Merkel aims to ward off diesel car ban in Germany, DW (Oct. 2, 2018) https://www.dw.com/en/angela-merkel-aims-to-ward-off-diesel-car-ban-in-germany/a-45978487.

[35] Id.  

[36] Germany tweaks law to limit diesel car bans, Phys.org (Nov. 15, 2018), https://phys.org/news/2018-11-germany-tweaks-law-limit-diesel.html.

[37] Hockenos, supra, note 3.

[38] Eddy, supra note 8.

[39] Eddy, supra note 8.

[40] David Reid, BMW says the German government’s diesel fix ‘doesn’t make sense for us’, CNBC (Oct. 2, 2018),     https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/02/diesel-bmw-says-the-german-government-fix-doesnt-make-sense.html.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] See, Hockenos, supra note 3.

[44] See, Eddy, supra note 8.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] See, Hockenos, supra note 3.

[48] See, Hotten, supra note 27.

[49] See, Hockenos, supra note 3.