Diesel driving bans ‘self-destructive’: German transit minister

Efforts by courts to impose diesel driving bans are "self-destructive" and put German prosperity at risk, the transport minister warned Friday, as tempers flared in the battle against urban air pollution.

Diesel driving bans 'self-destructive': German transit minister
Berlin's busy Friedrichstrasse is one of the areas affected by the diesel ban. Photo: DPA

Speaking a day after a court in Essen became the first to order that sections of a major western highway be closed to older diesel vehicles, Andreas Scheuer lashed out at the “disproportionate” ruling.

“Judgements like these endanger the mobility of hundreds of thousands of citizens. Nobody understands this self-destructive debate,” Scheuer told Bild daily, adding that such bans “were unheard of in the rest of the world”.

The latest ruling follows a string of similar decisions ordering cities like Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart to bar the most polluting diesels from certain areas, alarming drivers nationwide.

SEE ALSO: Germany eases diesel vehicle bans, angering environmentalists

A transport ministry spokesman said the debate had become “highly emotional” in the car-loving nation where the auto industry is a pillar of economic growth and employs some 800,000 people.

“Closing motorways deprives our country of mobility,” the spokesman told reporters.

“Mobility is the foundation of our prosperity, of our growth, of employment. That's what we mean by self-destructive.”

The government in Berlin has found itself under mounting pressure to take action against the looming bans, which have been spurred by the car industry's “dieselgate” emissions cheating scandal.

The scam, first exposed at Volkswagen in 2015, for years allowed cars to spew far more harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than legally allowed, significantly contributing to German cities' chronic air pollution.

Scrambling to ward off the bans, the government has sought to get German carmakers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW to pay for hardware retrofits to clean up engines but the powerful car titans have only made limited concessions so far.

On Thursday, the cabinet moved to change legislation to prevent driving bans in some cities.

In measures still to be approved by parliament, Berlin wants to soften the threshold for implementing a driving ban, currently set at the EU-agreed limit of 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre.

Berlin says cities where pollution levels are between 40 and 50 micrograms should be exempt from any bans, sparking outrage from environmentalists who accuse the government of circumventing EU law.

SEE ALSO: Court orders diesel ban on some Berlin streets

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KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

Sweden's government has announced that it will allow a major wolf cull this year, with hunters licensed to kill as many as half of the estimated 400 animals in the country. What is going on?

KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

How many wolves are there in Sweden? 

Wolves were extinct in Sweden by the mid-1880s, but a few wolves came over the Finnish border in the 1980s, reestablishing a population.  

There are currently 480 wolves living in an estimated 40 packs between Sweden and Norway, with the vast majority — about 400 — in central Sweden. 

How many wolves should there be? 

The Swedish parliament voted in 2013, however, for the population to be kept at between 170 to 270 individuals, with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency then reporting to the EU that Sweden would aim to keep the population at about 270 individuals to meet the EU’s Habitats Directive. 

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency was commissioned by the government to update the analysis,  and make a new assessment of the reference value for the wolf’s population size. It then ruled in a report the population should be maintained at about 300 individuals in order to ensure a “favourable conservation status and to be viable in the long term”. 

What’s changed now? 

Sweden’s right-wing opposition last week voted that the target number should be reduced to 170 individuals, right at the bottom of the range agreed under EU laws. With the Moderate, Christian Democrat, Centre, and Sweden Democrats all voting in favour, the statement won a majority of MPs.

“Based on the premise that the Scandinavian wolf population should not consist of more than 230 individuals, Sweden should take responsibility for its part and thus be in the lower range of the reference value,” the Environment and Agriculture Committee wrote in a statement.

Why is it a political issue? 

Wolf culling is an almost totemic issue for many people who live in the Swedish countryside, with farmers often complaining about wolves killing livestock, and hunters wanting higher numbers of licenses to be issued to kill wolves. 

Opponents of high wolf culls complain of an irrational varghat, or “wolf hate” among country people, and point to the fact that farmers in countries such as Spain manage to coexist with a much higher wolf population. 

So what has the government done? 

Even though the ruling Social Democrats voted against the opposition’s proposal, Rural Affairs Minister Anna-Caren Sätherberg agreed that the wolf population needed to be culled more heavily than in recent years. As a result, the government has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to once again reassess how many wolves there should be in the country. 

“We see that the wolf population is growing every year and with this cull, we want to ensure that we can get down to the goal set by parliament,” Sätherberg told the public broadcaster SVT.

Sweden would still meet its EU obligations on protecting endangered species, she added, although she said she understood country people “who live where wolves are, who feel social anxiety, and those who have livestock and have been affected”.