In a January ruling marking a turning point in German transport policy, an administrative court in Wiesbaden ordered the regional government of Hesse to clean up diesel exhaust fumes by September or face a fine.
Following the deepening VW diesel emissions testing scandal, the ruling puts pressure on the entire German vehicle industry production of diesel cars — which has been central to their business model.
The German Federal Environment Office said mono-nitrogen oxide emissions exceeded permissible limits at 60% of testing stations in 2015. The European Environment Agency (EEA) reported in June last year that this was a common problem across the EU — with Germany as an outstanding problem site.
Last year, two thirds of Germany's diesel car fleet failed the European Union diesel emissions standard. The EEA estimates that ultra-fine particles from diesel exhaust may cause 10,000 deaths in Germany each year.
Remo Klinger, a law professor from the Environmental Action Germany pressure group that brought the lawsuit, said the court decision marks a “fundamental turning point in transport policy, not just in Hesse but nationwide”.
He predicted: “Other courts will follow — that's for sure.”
German courts may simply ban diesel vehicles in city limits or make them pay costly tolls. Responding to what the Automotive News Europe website described as a “spreading crisis”, German car industry executives gathered in Hamburg on February 1 to discuss their options.
“Either we find a common solution — we have perhaps two years — or a solution will be dictated to us externally,” Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller told the meeting.
Almost half of the 3 million new cars sold each year in Germany are diesels. Seventy-four percent of BMW's sales are diesels, and 67% of Audi sales.
Environmental Action Germany said on February 16 that its real-conditions test of a Fiat Chrylser SUV with a Euro 6 engine — supposedly the best for emissions — showed its mono-nitrogen oxide levels were 11 to 22 times higher than the legal limit. This again demonstrates that it is not only VW that has cheated.
Hamburg mayor Olaf Scholz said: “Everyone including cities, businesses, the car industry, ultimately city residents, will increasingly face legal claims.” He expects that diesel cars, trucks and buses may be barred from inner cities “this or next year”.
Meanwhile, on February 12, South Korean prosecutors searched the local Volkswagen and Audi offices as part of a probe into emissions fraud, Reuters said.
A conviction could result in a jail term of up to seven years, plus fines. Volkswagen and Audi sell most imported cars in South Korea, which is the second-biggest Asian market for diesel cars after India.