Greenpeace environmental activists protest in front of Germany's Federal Administrative Court before it decides whether German law provides a legal basis for cities to ban diesel cars to help reduce air pollution, in Leipzig, Germany February 27, 2018. The placards read: "Health risk." REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Greenpeace environmental activists protest in front of Germany's Federal Administrative Court before it decides whether German law provides a legal basis for cities to ban diesel cars to help reduce air pollution © Reuters

The German government said it would consider introducing blue badges for cleaner diesel cars, after a court ruling on Tuesday opened the way for cities to ban older diesel vehicles sent the issue to the top of the country’s political agenda.

Steffen Seibert, spokesman for chancellor Angela Merkel, said the next government would take up the question of the badges, which would exempt cleaner cars from local driving bans, “as soon as possible”.

He was responding to the ruling of the federal administrative court, which allowed German towns to bar the most polluting diesel cars from their roads — a move that puts the fate of millions of older vehicles in question.

The judges upheld earlier rulings from courts in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, saying driving bans were permissible in both cities if they were the only way to ensure swift compliance with EU air quality rules. 

Around 70 cities in Germany have worse air quality than the law allows — a daily limit of 40 microgrammes of nitrogen oxide per cubic metre — including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt.

These cities must now ensure they have viable plans to improve air quality or face legal action from environmental groups emboldened by the federal court’s verdict.

Authorities in Berlin see the blue badges idea as one way to ensure the country does not end up with a patchwork of different and often conflicting regulations. The idea is strongly supported by the German environment ministry but opposed by the transport ministry, which continues to insist it “goes in the wrong direction”.

The blue badge concept is also backed by the Deutsche Städtetag, which represents the interests of German cities. “We need a label and we need a co-ordinated approach,” it said in a statement, warning of a situation where different cities enforced different bans in particularly polluted areas. 

Blue badges “would also make it easier for cities to grant exemptions, for example for delivery vehicles and for craftsmen,” said Markus Lewe, the mayor of Münster and president of the Städtetag.

The scheme is also backed by the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, a consumer rights’ group, which told Handelsblatt that a “patchwork of signs and bans would completely confuse drivers”.

NGOs, which have been bringing legal action against German cities over air pollution, also want to see a blue plaque introduced. 

“We believe that now the federal government should live up to its duty, and rather than fighting against diesel bans, they should be deciding against pollution and ensuring there is a consistent framework in Germany,” said Ugo Taddei, a lawyer for ClientEarth.

Meanwhile, Hamburg became the first city in Germany to say it was imposing diesel bans as a response to Tuesday’s ruling.

Other cities, however, reacted angrily to the verdict, with the mayor of Düsseldorf warning that it had presented local governments with a “practically insoluble task” which could only be dealt with “at enormous expense”. 

“In principle, every vehicle would have to have their papers checked to see if they are affected by the driving ban or not,” said Thomas Geisel.

Michael Münter, head of strategic planning and sustainable mobility for Stuttgart, said bans would create huge problems for cities, potentially diverting tourists who are travelling by car.

But he said that Stuttgart, which last year recorded nitrogen oxide emissions of 73mg per cubic metre, will probably implement a ban on older, Euro 4 diesel vehicles within a year.

Cities that have not faced legal action yet are likely to consider alternative measures, with bans seen as a last resort. The federal court said that if cities can show their air quality levels improve this year and next, then bans could be postponed.

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