So much for Germany’s mighty automobile lobby. Today Germany’s Federal Administrative Court ruled that Stuttgart, home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, has the right to ban diesel vehicles from its city centre. This sets an important precedent. If Germany’s motor city can outlaw diesel, other cities will surely follow their example (indeed, the ruling also applies to Düsseldorf, which brought a similar case).
Naturally the German car industry opposes this ban, and so do the German government, but their chances of overturning this ruling seem slender. The Federal Administrative Court (or Bundesverwaltungsgericht, if you want to brush up on your knowledge of tongue-twisting German compound nouns) is the highest court in the land.
The German car industry has invested heavily in diesel, a decision that now looks terribly misguided. This ruling is the latest nail in diesel’s coffin, following on from Volkswagen’s ‘Dieselgate’ scandal (in which the German car giant admitted it used illegal software to tamper with American emissions tests). Even the prospect of future bans is already having a bad effect on sales of diesel cars - especially resales. In 2015, diesel accounted for 48% of German car sales. It’s now 39%, and falling.
Germany has always had a love-hate relationship with the motor car. The combustion engine was born in Stuttgart, and it’s been the driving force of the German economy ever since Gottlieb Daimler teamed up with Karl Benz. The history of Volkswagen encapsulates Germany’s postwar regeneration, from Nazi ‘people’s car’ to VW Beetle. And yet no other nation has a more romantic attachment to nature, or a keener concern with public health. The automobile and environmental lobbies have always been at loggerheads. This ruling shows environmentalists are finally gaining the upper hand.
The Green Party is far stronger in Germany than it’s ever been in Britain. It’s served in coalition governments, on a regional and national level. Last year, the Greens looked set to enter another national coalition, with Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, until the Free Democrats pulled the plug. Environmental groups in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf took this diesel case all the way to the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig. Their success shows German green power isn’t confined to the Bundestag.
Driving diesel out of city centres is something that’s happening all across the Continent, and petrol looks set to follow. Paris has banned diesel cars made before 2000 - after 2030, all diesel and petrol cars will be prohibited. From 2025, Norway will ban the sale of all new diesel and petrol cars.
For Deutschland’s automobile industry, this is an existential challenge. No wonder German firms like Audi and BMW are now investing heavily in electric cars. Whether or not the green lobby succeeds in its ultimate ambition to drive all diesel and petrol powered cars out of every city, it seems certain that German carmakers will be on the defensive for decades to come. The idea that German carmakers would exert a hidden hand in our Brexit negotiations was always fanciful. It seems especially fanciful now the industry is on the back foot in its own backyard. It’s true that German carmakers can ill afford to lose their British exports, but they have far bigger worries at home.
So what else does this mean for Britain? Will Brexit mean we can ignore those pesky EU emission limits, and happily poison one another to our collective hearts’ content? Maybe, but don’t forget – this case is about German cities acting against the German government. Whatever happens in Westminster, liberal mayors in cities like London and Manchester will look to Stuttgart andDüsseldorf, and be tempted to follow suit. For better or worse, diesel is on its way out of German – and European - cities. Britain may be slow to grasp the nettle, even slower than the Germans. But within a generation, diesel - and eventually petrol - will surely be out of British cities too.