German court rules diesel cars can be banned from cities

An environmental activist protests in front of Germany's federal administrative court, in Leipzig, Germany, February 27, 2018. The words read, "Diesel exhaust kills." Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

LEIPZIG, Germany - German cities can ban the most heavily polluting diesel cars from their streets, a court ruled on Tuesday, a move likely to accelerate a shift away from the combustion engine and force manufacturers to pay to improve exhaust systems.

The court said Stuttgart, which styles itself the birthplace of the modern automobile and is home to Mercedes-maker Daimler, should consider gradually imposing a year-round ban for older diesel models, while Duesseldorf should also think about curbs.

Many other German cities exceed European Union limits on nitrogen oxide (NOx), known to cause respiratory disease. Just hours after the ruling, the northern city of Hamburg said it would start to implement limits on diesel vehicles from the end of April.

There has been a global backlash against diesel-engine cars since leading German carmaker Volkswagen admitted in 2015 to cheating US exhaust tests. The scandal has spread across the industry and prompted steps to promote the use of cleaner, electric vehicles.

Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have said they plan to ban diesel vehicles from city centres by 2025, while the mayor of Copenhagen wants to ban new diesel cars from entering the city as soon as next year. France and Britain will ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

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The ban in the home of some of the world's biggest automakers is a further blow for the sector, and an embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which has faced criticism for its close ties to the industry.

Germany has long promoted diesel to help cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate change goals, but the country now fears that a shift away from the combustion engine could threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs at carmakers and their suppliers.

Mixed reaction

The ruling was praised by environmental groups but angered many politicians and business lobbies who said millions of drivers might end up unable to use or sell vehicles they bought in good faith.

"Driving bans have a massive impact on our ownership rights, on mobility and on our profession," said Hans Peter Wollseifer, president of the association of German tradesmen. "The carmakers are to blame for the diesel problem, not us tradesmen."

Merkel said the government would discuss with regions and municipalities how to proceed, while her ministers said they still hoped bans could be averted by steps to bolster public transport and get automakers to improve emissions systems.

"We must do everything possible to prevent the loss of personal freedom and the reduction in value of cars," Transport Minister Christian Schmidt told a news conference.

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Sales of diesel cars have been falling fast in Europe since the Volkswagen scandal, with fears of driving bans sending demand sharply lower in Germany in the last year.

Germany's VDA auto industry lobby noted the court had not insisted on driving bans: "It is a rejection of general driving bans... They must be proportional and only considered as a last resort," the VDA's Matthias Wissmann said in a statement.


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