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April 4, 2005

GERMANY: Carmakers face public outcry against air pollution

German automakers and their suppliers are scrambling to defuse swelling public support for harsh anti-car provisions in German cities.

German automakers and their suppliers are scrambling to defuse swelling public support for harsh anti-car provisions in German cities.

The primary effort by German automakers is to rapidly equip diesel cars sold in Germany with particulate filters that remove tiny particles from car exhaust gases.

But after years of scorning particulate filter technology, German automakers like Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler and BMW find suppliers cannot meet a sudden surge in demand, reported Automotive News Europe.

EU-imposed limits on air pollution – defined in 1999 – became tighter in January, requiring EU cities not exceed the limits more than 35 days per year. But when over the Easter weekend Berlin, Stuttgart and Munich neared those annual limits on fine particulates (smaller than 10 microns), media coverage and public demands on German politicians for solutions reached a fever pitch.

The exhaust from vehicle diesel engines has been identified as a major source of fine particulates. Debate is sharply divided on what percentage diesels contribute. Automakers prefer to discuss passenger car diesels separately from commercial vehicle and bus diesels.

Berlin and other German cities are facing lawsuits by citizens alarmed about the health implications of tiny particulates, which can be drawn deeply into human lungs and which aggravate respiratory problems.

A World Health Organisation study says up to 13,000 deaths of European children ages four and under could be blamed on particulate pollution. WHO says 5,000 of those lives would be saved if EU particulate limits are met.

Environmentalists are demanding a variety of strict measures to improve air quality in city centres. Proposals include city centre bans on diesel cars that have no particulate filters, congestion charges, bans on Sunday driving, as well as a measure automakers endorse: tax subsidies on purchases of diesel particulate filters.

The sudden German furor is a “hysterical reaction,” EU Commission vice president Guenter Verheugen said on German television last Thursday.

“The problem has been known for many years,” he said. “Communities have had since 1999 to prepare.”

Verheugen did not offer a delay in enforcement, but said the EU will monitor German compliance to air quality measures for a year before taking any action.

Other countries have already acted in anticipation of the new rules. Nine Italian cities have banned Sunday driving. Austria offers a €300 tax incentive on diesel particulate filters. The Netherlands previously imposed an extra purchase tax on diesel cars, reducing diesel sales penetration there to 25%.

But traffic restrictions may not work, transport experts say.

“If cities close their roads for private transportation, they will quickly discover that it will have almost zero impact on the particulate levels,” said Theo Romahn, a Dusseldorf-based city planner and traffic expert.

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