Merkel meets carmakers over threat of diesel vehicle bans in German cities

Chancellor reportedly changed her mind to favour retrofitting engines to cut emissions

Chancellor Angela Merkel met auto makers on Sunday in Berlin to discuss additional measures, including engine retrofits, to avoid large-scale diesel vehicle bans in German cities.

Such a shift would mark a striking change of mind by the German leader in the debate sparked by revelations of industry-wide emissions fraud in 2015.

Until now Dr Merkel has opposed retrofitting engines as too costly – an estimated €3,000 per vehicle – and too slow a solution for air quality in German cities, many of whom are in breach of European Union guidelines.

Instead she backed the industry solution for cheaper – and less effective – software updates. In addition German cities have introduced their own measures- including speed limits on major traffic arteries and promises to buy cleaner buses - in a bid to bring air quality within EU limits.


But German environmental groups have taken dozens of cities to court and judges have already imposed the first bans on diesel vehicles. With further court-ordered bans looming, affecting millions of German commuters and businesses, Merkel allies facing state elections in Hesse and Bavaria are getting nervous.

Court ruling

Earlier this month a court ruled that Frankfurt, the largest state in Hesse, must ban polluting older diesel and petrol vehicles from the city centre from February to improve air quality.

“We want that the federal government creates the conditions so that engine retrofits can take place at the cost of the manufacturer,” said Mr Volker Bouffier, Hesse state premier and a senior member of Dr Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), seeking re-election next month.

Dr Merkel has told her federal transport minister Andreas Scheuer, from her Bavarian sister party CSU – also facing re-election in October – to find a way to make older diesel vehicles cleaner while avoiding large-scale bans.

While the chancellor has reportedly changed her mind in favour of retrofits, Mr Scheuer is said to favour upgrade incentives.

But it is unclear who – industry or taxpayer – would finance either retrofits or new car incentives. Germany’s federal environment agency (UBA) has expressed doubts over the efficacy of replacing older cars.

An internal UBA studied found that taking older cars off the road would reduce nitrogen oxide pollution – a key pollutant in diesel emissions – by only 0.7 micrograms per cubic metre. This would make barely a dent in overall pollution levels of between 73 and 78 micrograms in cities such as Stuttgart or Munich – almost twice EU limits of 40mg per cubic metre. The UBA paper said building selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems was the only way to avoid driving bans.

At Sunday’s meeting, politicians and car executives were also expected to discuss which diesel standard should be included in the measure. Pre-meeting reports suggested the measures would focus on so-called Euro-5 standard from 2010 and not the newer Euro-6 standard.

“But there are six million Euro-6 diesels of which an estimated 80 per cent have emissions above emission limits,” said Prof Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, auto analyst with the university of Duisburg-Essen.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin