Millions of heavily polluting vehicles could eventually disappear from roads across Germany after its top administrative court ruled that cities have the right to ban diesel motors in an effort to improve deadly air quality levels.
Tuesday’s historic decision potentially affects an estimated 12m vehicles and has delivered a heavy blow to Europe’s largest car market, while being celebrated by environmental campaigners.
Germany’s highest administrative court in Leipzig ruled in favour of upholding bans that were introduced by lower courts in the cities of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, two of the most polluted German cities, after appeals were lodged by the states of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia.
The Leipzig court ruling in the case, which was originally brought by the environmental groups Deutsche Umwelthilfe (German environmental aid or DUH) and ClientEarth, paves the way for cities across Germany to follow suit.
“It’s a great day for clean air in Germany,” Jürgen Resch, of the DUH, said.
The court said it would be up to city and municipal authorities to apply the bans, but advised them to “exercise proportionality” in enforcing them, and to impose them gradually, granting exemptions for certain vehicles, such as ambulances, rubbish collection lorries and police cars.
Ugo Taddei, a lawyer for ClientEarth called the decision “an incredible result for people’s health”, and suggested it could have an impact in foreign courts. “This ruling gives us legal clarity which we’ve long waited for, that diesel restrictions are legally permissible and will necessarily trigger a domino effect across the country, impacting as well on other legal cases,” he told German media.
ClientEarth believed that imposing traffic restrictions on the most polluting vehicles was the most effective way of improving protection from air pollution, he said.
Experts estimate that excessive amounts of nitrogen oxides or NOx in the air kill between 6,000 and 13,000 people in Germany every year, causing a range of health conditions, from strokes to asthma.
Most NOx comes from transport, especially diesel motors. The EU threshold of 40 micrograms of NOx per cubic metre is frequently exceeded in many German cities, with 70 on the list, most notably Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Munich.
The decision will pitch millions of drivers into a state of uncertainty over how they can travel to work and school in case of a ban, and how they should deal with owning vehicles likely to plunge in value.
It will also provide Germany’s new government – which is most likely to be a grand coalition between Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats– with a large headache as it faces calls to consider a compensation scheme.
Eager to reassure anxious car owners, the government insisted nothing would change immediately and stressed that bans were not inevitable.
“The court has not issued any driving bans but created clarity about the law,” the environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, said. “Driving bans can be avoided, and my goal is and will remain that they do not come into force.”
Angela Merkel said the ruling concerned only individual cities. “It’s really not about the entire country and all car owners,” the chancellor said.
The president of the Association of the German Automobile Industry, Matthias Wissmann, criticised the decision, insisting that the “ambitious air quality standards in German cities are also achievable without driving bans”.
He added that the air quality problems could be solved in the medium term “if and when more vehicles with new exhaust standards entered the car pool”.
Shares in German car manufacturers suffered a moderate decline after the ruling.
Debate on NOx has prevailed for years but the political dimensions of the issue were stirred by the revelations in 2015 that carmakers, most notably Volkswagen, had cheated on diesel emission tests.
At a diesel summit in Berlin last November between car industry representatives and the German government to discuss what to do with older vehiclesm, governments on the local, state and national level pledged €1bn to alleviate the environmental impact of diesel.
Merkel, however, was accused of being too ready to let the powerful car lobby off the hook for its own failings and deception. Few believed the financial injection would effectively translate into improved air conditions.
Unlike in the US, where millions of drivers whose diesel cars had been fitted with manipulated emissions software were offered free retrofits, little has been done in Germany to fix the problem. BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen have so far only agreed to finance less expensive software upgrades in Germany, where consumer rights are less stringent.
Precisely how many vehicles might be affected by the ban remains unclear until further details are revealed. Of the 15m diesel cars registered in Germany, around 6m are of a “Euro 6” emissions standard that would probably escape a ban. There are also millions of lorries, buses, taxis and other heavy goods vehicles that use diesel.
Industry representatives have expressed their concern that tradespeople in particular might be disadvantaged in carrying out their daily business, and have called for special exemptions to avoid potentially devastating effects on the economy.
Gerd Landsberg, the director of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB), said it was hard to see how a diesel ban could be effectively implemented and monitored.
“Municipalities are simply not in a position to fulfil any time soon the mountainous bureaucracy tasks that would necessarily accompany a driving ban,” he said.
However, Hamburg’s environment senator promised swift implementation of the ban on two of the northern port city’s most polluted roads. Jens Kerstan said diesel durchfahrtsbeschränkungen, or diesel transit restrictions. could be in place within weeks.