BERLIN, Oct. 2 (Xinhua) -- The ruling grand coalition in Germany achieved a breakthrough in protracted negotiations over how to avert looming diesel driving bans in cities, the leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and German Social Democrats (SPD) announced on Tuesday.
Following the conclusion of a special cabinet session which began on Monday afternoon and dragged on into the early morning hours, the federal government said it would unveil a package of measures geared towards lowering harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. The high-level talks were recently scheduled by Chancellor Angela Merkel to resolve a long-standing dispute among her ministers over how to improve urban air quality in Germany without having to impose outright bans on diesel vehicles.
According to SPD leader Andrea Nahles, the policy package now agreed upon includes a provision for contentious technical retrofitting measures, or so-called "hardware upgrades", for cars affected by the diesel emissions scandal. Hardware upgrades have repeatedly been described as essential to achieve a significant reduction in NOx emissions by environment minister Svenja Schulze and several non-governmental environmental groups, but were previously resisted by transport minister Andreas Scheuer and car makers on the grounds of cost and liability issues.
The German Environment Agency (UBA) has estimated that diesel cars are responsible for more than 50 percent of NOx emissions in Germany. NOx levels currently exceed binding limits set in European Union (EU) clean air legislation in several major German cities, prompting the European Commission to file an lawsuit against the federal government in Berlin at the European Court of Justice (CJEU).
Earlier, Scheuer said his top priority was consequently to ensure that customers were offered financial incentives to purchase new, cleaner vehicles. Scheuer's focus on "fleet renewal" was criticized by the SPD, however, on the grounds that they would only benefit Germans who could afford to purchase a new car.
Although car makers already offered premiums of up to 10,000 euros (11,543 U.S. dollars) per new purchase to customers in 2017, the positive effect on air quality is seen as insufficient by the government to prevent driving bans. Recent emissions testing conducted independently by Environmental Action Germany (DUH) has found that even the newest Euro6 diesel motor types release 5.5 times more NOx emissions on average than permitted under EU law.
Citing a document listing the resolutions of the cabinet session, the German press agency (dpa) reported that further fleet renewal premiums, as well new retro-fitting options would be offered to motorists in areas most affected by NOx pollution. These include cities such as Frankfurt and Stuttgart where courts have recently ordered the imposition of diesel driving bans.
In the event that driving bans can still not be averted, and as a last resort to ensure compliance with EU clean air legislation, the government wants to create uniform regulations on the access of diesel vehicles to affected cities. Dpa also quoted insider information that taxpayers were likely to have to shoulder at least a small share of the envisioned technical retrofitting measures.
Questioned whether the powerful automotive industry would support what the government has dubbed the "concept for clean air and the protection of individual mobility in our cities", Nahles said on Tuesday that it remained to be seen. Nevertheless, the "dieselgate" breakthrough was cautiously welcomed by consumer protection groups.
"If (the package) includes free retrofitting for car owners with guarantees and generous discounts, that would be a step forward," Klaus Mueller, the president of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv), told press.
The transport minister and his cabinet colleague Schulze are both scheduled to present details of the legislative concept to the public on Tuesday afternoon.