Issue of March, 10, 2007
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Report
German Cars Failing the Environment
By Julio Godoy

Germany's auto manufacturers are refusing to adopt strict environmental standards. Their critics say car buyers should turn to Japanese manufacturers instead.

BERLIN, Mar 12 (Tierramérica).- The German automotive industry, which exported 3.9 million cars in 2006 -- a large portion to Latin America -- is coming under criticism for its inability to produce engines with lower carbon dioxide emissions and for their refusal to accept ambitious targets for environmental protection.

In early February, that attitude prompted Renate Künast, who served as the federal ecology minister until 2005, to urge consumers to "buy Japanese cars with hybrid engines, instead of German cars that pollute the environment."

Japanese companies sell hybrid engines, which run on a combination of electricity and fossil or biological fuels, and considerably reduce pollutants, like climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2).

Meanwhile, the German industry continues manufacturing traditional engines with high fuel consumption and high emissions. The Porsche Carrera, for example, emits 300 grams of CO2 per kilometer, compared to a national average of 172 grams/km.

But the buyers of such cars in Latin America don't have to feel quite so guilty: the cars that Germany exports to the region comply with local environmental requirements, industry sources told Tierramérica.

However, they admit that such standards are more lax than Europe's.

According to the 2006-2007 environmental assessment by the German Auto Club (VCD), most of the "cleaner" cars are Japanese. On a list of the 10 with lowest CO2 emissions, the group included four Toyota models, two from Daihatsu and one from Honda. Only one German car made the list: Volkswagen's Polo Blue Motion.

Although the VDA, the German automotive industry association, rejects such criticism, it looks like change is beginning to happen. At the new automotive fair that opened Mar. 6 in Geneva, the German manufacturers showed a wide array of new cars with fuel consumption and CO2 emissions even lower than Europe's acceptable levels.

In January, the European Commission proposed that new cars in 2012 must emit no more than 120 grams of CO2/km, but VDA president Bernd Gottschalk came out in opposition, arguing that "a rigid directive would constitute a sanction against the superior quality cars of the German industry."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped in, and the criteria were modified according to the VDA's wishes. The emissions to be allowed for the 2012 vehicles are 130 grams/km, which is to be an average, not a maximum.

In a Tierramérica interview, Jürgen Resch, head of the environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthife, said Merkel is "an accomplice of VDA in the assassination of environmental protection."

"With her opposition to the European Commission's goals, Anela Merkel undermined the ecological standards of European transport policy and discredited German environmental policy," said Resch.

The fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the first section of which was presented Feb. 2 in Paris, established unequivocally that carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for climate change and its dramatic global impacts.

Transportation is the second sector in CO2 emissions in Europe, after the energy industry. A report from the European Union published in 2006 said transportation represented 21 percent of the emissions in the bloc's 15 most industrialized countries.

Furthermore, transport is the European industry whose emissions have increased most since 1990 (26 percent), in contrast to the general trend of other industries, whose emissions fell five percent in the same period. Without new environmental protection measures, the emissions from transportation will increase 35 percent by 2010, says the report.

The German car industry's opposition to binding targets for emissions reduction is nothing new. In 1995, when the European Commission proposed cutting emissions of European cars to 120 grams/km in 2005, the VDA and the German government at the time blocked the initiative. The VDA promised to curb "voluntarily" its new car emissions to 140 g/km in 2008.

Twelve years later, the average CO2 emissions of new German cars are 172 g/km. In January 2007, Chancellor Merkel admitted that "the German industry will not be able to meet the goals" set in 1995.

For Wolfgang Lohbeck, a spokesman for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, "the federal German government thinks its citizens are stupid. Instead of this, it should require the industry to build cleaner cars and introduce obligatory CO2 emissions limits for 2012, of 100 g/km."

And the criticisms against the German car industry and the government come from the highest political circles in the country. In an interview published Feb. 28 in the weekly Die Zeit, Germany's President Horst Köhler said, "in environmental protection, the automotive industry is not in its moment of glory ... Nor has the government had the courage to establish ambitious standards."

According to Reinhard Bütikofer, leader of the Green Party, the criticism is justified. "The industry is ignoring new technologies and consumption trends," he told Tierramérica. "The German manufacturers are hurting environmental policy, technological innovation and themselves."

* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.

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