· Published in Cities versus multinationals

The German Activists and Cities Rising Up Against the Car Industry

In many German cities, efforts are underway to shift focus away from cars. These include a ban on old diesel cars and a push for more cycling infrastructure. In a country where carmakers sit at the throne of the economy and have a major political influence , a small revolution is underway.

“The German people have had a long love affair with the German car,” noted the German weekly, Die Zeit, in early 2019. “Synonymous with quality, reliability, economic power and a thriving exports market, the car is also a symbol of the country’s resurgence after World War Two.” It follows, then, that any criticism aimed at German cars is a bit like criticising German identity itself. The country boasts a thriving car industry with big names like Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW, well-known not only within Germany and Europe, but all over the world.

And yet, an increasing number of German cities and their citizens are turning against the sacred car. “There are more and more local initiatives that seek to make cities car-free,” says Tina Velo. “Many people are committed to improving the cycling infrastructure, while others are working to make public transport free, like Giessen in West Germany,” adds the thirty-something spokesperson for the group Sand im Getriebe (translated literally as the grain of sand in the gears). The group, which is aligned with Attac, is committed to making Germany’s cities completely car-free. For Tina Velo (not her own name), their work is about fighting for the planet. “Transport is the only sector where CO2 emissions have not declined since the 1990s. This is one reason why Germany is not going to meet its climate objectives.”

Car emissions on the rise

In 2007, Germany aimed to cut CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, and by 55% by 2030. Despite the country’s strong growth in renewables, it is still a long way from meeting these objectives. The emission reduction rate currently stands at 32%. And although individual cars are emitting less CO2 than they did in the nineties, there are more of them on the roads. According to the Federal Office for the Environment, total emissions from passenger cars increased by 0.5% between 1995 and 2017.

To get the message out there, Tina Velo and about a thousand activists blocked the international car show in Frankfurt on September 15th, 2019. The day before, between 18,000 and 25,000 people marched against what Tina Velo calls “an industry of destruction”. It would seem that Germany’s unconditional love of the car has taken a knock. The Dieselgate emissions scandal has also certainly played a role in this, tarnishing the emblem of the Germany economy.

The saga began in 2015 when the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed that the Volkswagen group (which owns Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche) used various techniques to falsify the number of fine particle emissions during regulatory testing. Millions of vehicles were thus equipped with software that showed emissions to be less than what they really were. The scandal has only escalated since these initial allegations, with all German carmakers revealed to be implicated.

Carmakers were forced to recall hundreds of thousands of cars in the USA and Europe, and legal proceedings followed. In North America class action was taken. In August 2019, Volkswagen agreed to pay out 96.5 million dollars (88 million euros) in compensation to 98,000 customers across the US. In Germany, the big bosses were taken to court. In April 2019, the group’s former chairman was charged with fraud by the Braunschweig court. In July, it was Audi’s turn with ex-head, Rupert Stadler, and three other company executives summoned to court. Legal action is also being taken by 400,000 German customers, with a trial that began in late September 2019.

Government reluctant to crack down

Despite the court rulings, progress is sluggish. According to figures published last June by the organisation Transport & environment, only a quarter of tampered vehicles were recalled to have the rigged software fixed. And Angela Merkel’s government is slow to take action. A first emergency meeting was held in late 2017, followed by another last year. A plan to improve air quality in cities has been announced with a 1.5 billion budget, part of which is to go towards helping Germany’s most polluted cities to invest in electric buses and cars.

“It’s a good start, but we’re still taking money from taxpayers to pay for the mistakes of carmakers,” says Harald Moritz, a Green member of the Berlin House of Representatives. Even Karsten Schulze, member of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC) steering committee, the German automobile organisation, deems the government’s actions inadequate: “Carmakers are only obliged to replaced the rigged software, but that’s not enough. New ‘hardware’ should be installed, including an emission-reducing filter. The car industry has broken the law, so those involved need to be held accountable and pay damages.” Although Daimler and Volkswagen have agreed to pay up to 3,000 euros per vehicle towards retrofitting, BMW has refused to come on board.

Lobbyists on the inside

“It cannot be in our interest to weaken the automobile sector to such an extent that it no longer has the strength to invest in its own future,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bundestag in 2018. And the figures speak for themselves. In 2017, the car industry generated almost 426 billion euros in revenue, 64% of which were exports. It employs more than 830,000 people. “The German government has close political ties to the car industry, particularly Angela Merkel’s inner circle,” highlights Christina Deckwirth, a political scientist at LobbyControl. “The Chancellor made Joachim Koschnicke, former head lobbyist for the car firm Opel, her campaign manager for the 2017 national elections. Several politicians have also shifted camp and gone to work for car companies, like conservative politician Eckart von Klaeden, who was hired by Daimler in 2013, after working in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office.”

According to Der Spiegel magazine, Eckart von Klaeden had no qualms capitalising on his political contacts to prevent stricter emission tests. In March 2015, when the European Commission sought to improve tests in real driving conditions, the lobbyist sent an email to the Chancery. “What, on the face of it may seem a minor technical decision,” he wrote, “could have enormous consequences on the car industry, especially in regards to the future of Diesel engines.” “There is no way,” he added, “that the European Commission’s proposal can be accepted.” Following this email, the government changed tact and removed all mention of a date at which test- ing in real driving conditions might be introduced.

“We also tend to forget that political parties receive some of their biggest donations from car companies,” said Christina Deckwirth. Between 2009 and 2017, the car industry and its manufacturers, subcontractors, service providers and professional associations – donated more than 17 million euros to conservative parties (CDU and CSU), social democrats (SPD), the liberal party (FDP) and the Greens (Grünen). BMW and its two main shareholders, brother and sister Stefan Quandt and Suzanne Klatten, have donated more than three million euros to various parties (mainly CDU and CSU, FDP, and, to a lesser extent, SPD) between 2010 and 2019. Daimler made donations worth over two million to CDU and SPD, splitting the sum evenly between them. [1] Between 2014 and 2017 Volkswagen donated more than 650,000 euros to various parties, including the Greens.

A public health issue

These figures may reveal where the government’s lack of action is coming from, but Dieselgate is not just about compensating cheated customers. It is, more importantly, about the public’s health. According to a study published earlier this year, the amount of nitrogen oxide in the air, large quantities of which are emitted by diesel vehicles, causes over 13,000 premature deaths in Germany each year. Since 2008, Member States are obliged to monitor air quality under a European directive. The directive set limits for fifteen air pollutants including fine particles and nitrogen dioxide. Yet, ten years later, the air quality in 57 German cities still exceeds the limits.

Faced with the government’s failure to take action, civil society has had to take over. The environmental organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) has filed 35 complaints against German cities since 2011, demanding that they comply with European standards. Other environmental organisations such as BUND are following suit with a number of successful cases. In Berlin, for example, the Administrative Court ruled in favour of the DUH in October 2018 and the city was forced to adopt a clean air plan, which includes introducing more 20 km/h zones and more paid parking. The German capital has also been forced to ban old diesel vehicles from the city centre, where pollution levels are highest. This ban, which only affects 2.9 kilometres of Berlin’s roads, has entered into force in early October 2019.

Ban met with controversy

Although Berlin’s drivers didn’t bat much of an eyelid at this news, the same cannot be said for Berlin’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce. “Three-quarters of corporate vehicles run on diesel,” says Hauke Dierks, the Chamber’s environmental expert. “Bans like this make it harder for certain shops and businesses to operate, and have an impact on customers, employees and deliveries.” Karsten Schulze of the ADAC also deems “such measures ineffective. People are just going to avoid the streets concerned and the pollution will be recorded elsewhere.”

However, Berlin is not the only city to apply bans. There is also a ban on old diesel vehicles in certain areas of Hamburg and Darmstadt. And they have been banned from the entire city centre in Stuttgart. Bans are also due to come into effect in Cologne, Bonn and Essen. Some city councils, however, have decided to appeal court rulings. The federal government is intent on avoiding any draconian measures. Last March it voted to amend the Federal Automobile Emissions Act at the Bundestag. The text stipulates that “traffic bans [...] generally only apply where the average annual value exceeds 50 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic meter of air,” – even though the limit set by the European directive is 40 micrograms. “Changing the law is not going to stop bans,” says Harald Moritz. “It’s just the government’s way of giving the message that it is protecting its citizens from the wicked city councils that are trying stamp on their freedom. And they want to detract attention from the fact that they’re doing nothing to rein in carmakers.” The Berlin councillor is fully aware, however, that the bans are going to be difficult to enforce. “It’s not necessarily that easy to spot an old diesel car without looking at the registration papers.” He is pushing for the federal government to introduce a system where blue stickers are required for diesel vehicles, which would make checks easier. “The government is refusing to do it,” he adds with irritation. “Maybe they’re afraid that this would make it too easy to ban diesel vehicles from all city centres.”

Auto industry gets behind the electric car

“This isn’t the Middle Ages – we don’t need walls around cities,” argues Joachim Damasky, General Technical and Environmental Director of the German Automobile Industry Association (Verband der Automobilindustrie – VDA), the car industry lobby. In his view, excluding cars is overlooking a whole section of the population. “What about the people who have to commute to get to work because they don’t have the means to buy an apartment in the city centre? More public transport is a good thing, but it’s expensive and it takes time.” The future, for him, is the electric car. And the car industry is ready to play its part in such a future: “Over the next three years, our companies will invest 40 billion euros in electric cars and alternatively powered methods,” says the man representing the car sector.

It was no surprise that the electric car was in the spotlight at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show. But for Tina Velo, it amounts to nothing more than greenwashing. “Firstly, such investments have come too late in the game. And secondly, it’s not only about pollution; personal cars are problematic in a number of another ways. With all the roads and carparks required, cars take up far too much room in our cities. Not to mention all the accidents. Electric cars don’t do anything to change all that. That’s why we are pushing for car-free cities.”

Although Karsten Schulze from the ADAC doesn’t share Tina Velo’s viewpoint, he admits that cars take up too much space in German cities. But to have less cars in cities, we need “a better public transport system,” he says. His idea is a system with large parking lots at the end of metro lines. “We’ve been talking about this sort of model for years, but it requires a big cash investment and the councils aren’t ready to go there.”

Berlin makes huge investments in car-free alternatives

After years of austerity, however, the German capital is ready to fork out. In early January, Berlin’s transport senator, Regine Günther, announced investments of 28 billion euros over the next fifteen years to go towards extending and modernising the public transport system. This decision follows the mobility act adopted by the Berlin Chamber of Deputies in 2018. But again, this only came after civil society got involved. “For a long time, the local government expressed no interest whatsoever in supporting biking,” explains Heinrich Strössenreuther, a Berlin greenie and keen cyclist. “The city used to spend only €3.70 per resident per year on cycling infrastructure. That’s the price of a large beer. It’s a ridiculously small amount compared to the money that goes into cars, which is in the ballpark of 80 euros per resident per year.” Deciding to do something about it, he, along with several other activists, drafted a bill in 2015 on bike traffic, with a view to having the legislation adopted through a citizens’ initiative referendum. The initiative got over 100,000 signatures in just a few months.

“This initiative made biking the word on every politician’s lips in Berlin. All the political parties were beginning to take an interest,” says Heinrich Strössenreuther. In Autumn 2016, the Social Democrats won the local elections in Berlin and teamed up with the Greens and the Left party Die Linke to govern the city. In their coalition contract, they pledged to adopt a mobility law that would prioritise bike-lanes, pedestrians and public transport in the city. Heinrich Strössenreuther and his fellow activists were asked to help draft the section on bikes and bike lanes.

One out of three trips by bike by 2025

From 2019, each year 51 million euros is going to go towards developing cycling infrastructure in the German capital. The city boasts an increasing number of bike lanes, and 100,000 new bicycle parking spaces are to be installed by 2025, half of which will be near metro stations. 100 kilometres of bike freeways through the city are also on the cards. The goal is that, by 2025, one out of three trips will be made by bike compared to about one in seven today.

“For the first time, our transport policy doesn’t revolve around cars,” says the green councillor Harald Moritz. However, his party would like to take things even further. “We’d like to see toll booths at the entrance to the city with different tariff categories. The more polluting a car is, the higher the tariff.” The objective would be to ban the internal combustion engine entirely by 2030.
Although a certain revolution may be underway in Berlin, LobbyControl’s Christina Deckwirth doesn’t see the overall mentality changing; “In rural areas, people are still highly dependent on their cars, and are very annoyed about all these traffic bans. It’s an issue that people get very worked up about.”

The government still backing cars

Dieselgate is far from being the only scandal to tarnish the reputation of Germany’s cars. In 2017, Der Spiegel revealed that BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen colluded to avoid any competition in the realm of emission-reducing technologies. In September 2018, the European Commission opened an in-depth investigation into the three carmakers and the possibility that they may have broken EU competition rules. In April 2019, the European Commission sent the automakers a statement of objections. If the Commission is not satisfied with their response, the companies may be fined up to 10% of their turnover.

In spite of this, “the federal government is still intent on defending the interests of the big carmakers,” says Christina Deckwirth. “But the numerous scandals have made the headlines here and highlighted just how big Germany’s car lobby is. And that’s opened up a serious discussion on the issue. This is the first step towards a change in policy.”

By Déborah Berlioz

In love with Berlin, Déborah Berlioz settled in the city in 2009. An independent journalist, she works for various French-speaking media, including the Radio France Internationale broadcast « Accents d’Europe » and the weekly Réforme.

Translated from the French.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti

Photos : Jörg Farys/BUND CC BY ; Tim Wagner/Sand Im Getriebe CC BY ; Jakob Huber/Campact CC BY-NC ; Jakob Huber/Campact CC BY-NC.

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Footnotes

[1Source: Bundestag

Article published as part of our investigation: «Cities versus multinationals»
More about our investigation