Nowhere is the fight between the public good and corporate greed more apparent than in Germany, a nation that has made diesel vehicles the basis of much economic prosperity. To get a better understanding of how important diesel-powered cars are to the German auto industry, watch episode 1 of the new Netflix series Dirty Money. It examines the love affair German car companies have had with diesel engines since the 1970s when OPEC shut off the world’s petroleum supply.
I watched that episode the other night and it made my skin crawl, especially the footage of the monkeys that were subjected to unfiltered exhaust fumes in a US laboratory. First, the animals were treated to emissions from a 2013 New Beetle diesel. Then, they got treated to the exhaust from a rusted out 2006 Ford F-250 with a V-8 diesel engine. Supposedly, the experiments would show that diesel exhaust from the truck was worse for living tissue than diesel exhaust from a newer car. But the video of the monkey recoiling in horror as the exhaust fumes filled their locked cages made my skin crawl.
On February 27, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig ruled in favor of Environmental Action Germany, which sued authorities in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf last year to force them to impose bans on diesel-powered vehicles. The group argued that bans were needed in order to keep air quality in those cities within pollution limits imposed by the European Union. It won, but regional authorities appealed. The court agreed with the environmentalists, opening the door to diesel bans in many German cities.
“The flooding of cities with poisonous diesel exhausts is over,” Jürgen Resch, head of Environmental Action Germany, said after the ruling was announced, according to the Washington Post. “These cars don’t belong in our cities anymore.” Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) reports nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels in 70 German cities currently exceed EU limits. Diesel engines are primarily responsible for NOx emissions, which contribute to serious health issues for human beings.
NOx leads to the formation of fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — 30 times smaller than a human hair. Such fine particles can transition directly into the bloodstream, leading to respiratory and cardiovascular disease. NOx is also a major contributor to smog. In the Dirty Money episode about diesels on Netflix, researchers found NOx levels in daycare facilities that exceed recommended safe limits. NOx pollution is blamed for about 400,000 premature deaths across Europe each year, 75,000 of them in Germany, according to the Washington Post. This issue clearly pits industry and its quest for profits against the health of human beings.
The bans could apply to all diesel-powered vehicles that do not meet the latest Euro 6 standards. That means 10 million of the 15 million diesel vehicles on German roads could be subject to bans. Even that number may be suspect, as European regulators are questioning whether Euro 6 diesel engines installed in Audi models are really as clean as they seem to be in the real world.
Not surprisingly, the idea of diesel bans angers plenty of diesel owners. Ellen Loesch left this comment to the SZ article: “Oh, what, the drivers are the problem? Exciting. What’s with the manufacturers? You can only buy what is produced and not the other way around. When the companies build diesel, diesel is bought. So the citizen has to pay again.”
The court ruling may actually be welcome news for local politicians who were conflicted about the need to lower pollution levels without pissing off voters or the manufacturers. Now the court will take the heat instead of the pols, but there will still be enough pain to go around. It is important to note that the court ruling does not mandate bans. It merely approves their use if local officials decide to do so. “In essence, the Leipzig judges have dealt exactly [with the problem],” writes SZ. “They weighed the health against the interests of diesel drivers, and they chose health. What Europe demands on limits must be complied with in Germany … with driving restrictions for all cars that cause bad air.”
Sometimes Google Translate unwittingly adds a degree of levity to a serious situation. “The plaintiff, Environmental Action Germany, has been treated by industry and politics as a clan of fatherless fellows for daring to insist in court on compliance with legal limits. The Leipzig judges have now ennobled this obstinacy. What’s more, the process has made the failure of politics and industry visible to all. If Germany now discusses clean mobility, then that is also thanks to Environmental Action Germany. What more can one expect from an environmental organization?” A “clan of fatherless fellows,” eh? Is that how you say “a bunch of bastards” auf Deutsch?
The ruling by the German court could have wide-ranging implications not only in Germany but throughout Europe and perhaps the world. It could embolden US mayors to consider similar bans to protect their citizens from pernicious sources of pollution that threaten the health of their citizens. Any attempt to do so would be met by furious resistance from Trump administration officials, who have long ago signaled their intention to protect corporations from any liability for the damage they cause to society.
Mark this down as a win in round 1 in what promises to be a 15 round heavyweight fight. The good guys won this one, but there’s a lot of struggle left before the match is decided. It’s no exaggeration to say the fate of the world may hang in the balance, and lives will be lost along the way.