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Climate Crusade Risks Being Blemished By VW Emissions Scandal

Patrick Donahue, Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lectures on environmental responsibility may ring a little hollow when she heads to New York this weekend. 

Merkel, who for years has straddled between pushing to reduce global warming while protecting her country’s auto industry, is faced with Volkswagen AG’s emissions-cheating scandal just as she travels to the United Nations to cajole leaders into making binding commitments ahead of a global climate summit in Paris in December. Those efforts follow a Group of Seven summit she hosted in June, where Merkel, a former environment minister, extracted pledges to stamp out fossil-fuel emissions by the end of the century.

Merkel has built a reputation as a climate crusader during a decade as chancellor by shepherding her nation through a transition to renewable resources and away from nuclear energy, outstripping other European Union member states in seeking to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020. Her push, nonetheless, has often bumped up against the demands of Germany’s auto industry, which she successfully helped block tighter EU carbon emissions standards two years ago. Luxury brands Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Audi are also based in Germany, where Merkel says one in seven jobs depends on the auto industry and cars account for almost 20 percent of exports.


Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, faulted Merkel’s government for not being more proactive in pushing the auto industry to reduce pollution, saying the chancellor had done too little to promote electric cars. While Merkel has publicly stated her goal is 1 million electric cars on German roads by 2020, her government has done little in the way of incentives — unlike in neighboring France — to get consumers to buy such vehicles.

“I don’t think the chancellor is terribly concerned about such issues,” Dudenhoeffer said by phone. “Her climate actions have been rather reactive.”

A day before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that VW admitted to systematically cheating on air pollution tests for years, Merkel lauded the auto industry for its contribution in fighting global warming. Speaking at theInternational Auto Show in Frankfurt last Thursday, she said initiatives by German automakers such as electric-car technology had offered an “important contribution” to the country’s climate goals.

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