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Germany’s Diesel Disaster & The Lessons of ‘Dieselgate’

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., The Wall Street Journal

A whole generation of green activists and politicians probably will have to die away before rational priorities for limiting CO2 emissions will be discussable.

Angela Merkel had a bad 2018. Outsiders heard the word “migrants” during her party’s many electoral defeats. But a more urgent concern for millions of German voters was the fate of diesel cars they bought because they were told it was good for climate change.

In May, Hamburg became the first city to ban all but the most recent diesel models from its downtown. Well, parts of its downtown anyway—those parts suspiciously close to air-quality monitoring stations.

Other large cities such as Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf have rolled out more-stringent bans or must soon do so thanks to environmental lawsuits. Stuttgart, home of Daimler and Porsche, will impose a citywide ban. Starting next month, Frankfurt—the nation’s financial capital—is under orders to outlaw a quarter of the vehicles registered to city residents. Even a stretch of the autobahn near Essen will be closed to diesels.

In typical fashion, Ms. Merkel dithered forcefully through several party elections, hinting that the snafu would be fixed at the expense of German auto makers, not taxpayers or car owners. Voters were not fooled. Now Ms. Merkel is a lame duck. Meanwhile, the travails of the German car industry are cited, most recently by the Bundesbank, as a factor in Europe’s sudden and ominous economic slowdown.

The air-quality lawsuits were the work of a small group known in English as Environment Action Germany, which goes by the German acronym DUH, and is funded mainly by donations from Germany’s central and regional governments (and Toyota).

It doesn’t help that DUH was itself once a proselytizer for “clean diesel,” even pushing the technology on U.S. environmental groups as a quicker way to bring down carbon-dioxide emissions than waiting for electric cars to catch on.

Diesel does deliver a tad less CO2 per mile than gasoline but produces more smog and particulates, a detractor that turned out not to be fixable. Remember the Volkswagen scandal of 2015, when U.S. regulators ended the charade by discovering that emissions from imported VWs were 400% worse than advertised?

To this day, though, nobody in Europe is willing to acknowledge the biggest flaw in the continent’s now-defunct regulatory fetish for diesel.

However you slice it, cars just aren’t that big a part of an ostensible CO2 problem. Personal cars sit idle 95% of the time. Planes, trains, ships, trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles account for well over half the emissions associated with the transport sector globally. And the transport sector itself accounts for only 14% of all emissions.

Now for the knee-jerk response from groups like Union of Concerned Scientists: Yes, but road-vehicle emissions are a significant share of total emissions in the U.S. and Europe.

This is a perfect example of the politics of the meaningless gesture, the dominant motif in climate policy. The planet doesn’t care where the emissions happen. The U.S. and Europe could ban driving altogether and it wouldn’t make a sizable difference. For real leverage over CO2, the target has to be heavy industry, electricity generation, and home heating and cooking.

So why the car obsession? It’s a mental legacy of the air-pollution fights of the 1970s. To many voters, the car remains a sinful object. Eco groups, for purposes of self-promotion, can’t go wrong by portraying themselves as fighting against the automobile. Yet they get virtually nowhere on the alleged problem of CO2 by doing so.

Result: Insane amounts of political capital are spent trying to wring meaningless reductions from cars rather than spending it where it might do some good (such as reviving nuclear power). A case in point is a new European standard, announced two weeks ago, that would require emission cuts of 37.5% from new autos by 2030.

This target, it’s already clear, will be met by car makers subsidizing consumers to buy electric cars to offset profitable petrol and diesel cars. Europeans pretend these electric cars will be charged with wind and solar power. They won’t be. Germany already is clearing a forest to open a new coal mine to supplement its heavily subsidized but inadequate wind and solar power.

Europe’s diesel folly ranks as a colossal policy screw-up.

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see also GWPF coverage of Dieselgate