German transport minister stirs climate debate with threat of driving bans

A debate on abandoning sector-specific climate targets is heating up in Germany after Transport Minister Volker Wissing from the liberal FDP party warned that he might have to impose car bans on weekends unless the country’s climate law is reformed.

Last week, Wissing warned that nationwide driving bans on weekends might become necessary under the country’s current climate law, which forces ministries to present immediate action programmes if annual emission targets for their respective sector are missed.

“I have told the citizens the truth because this sectoral view means that we have to save 22 million [tonnes of] CO2 equivalents [in transport] immediately,” Wissing told radio station Deutschlandfunk on Friday (12 April).

“And these 22 million tonnes of savings cannot be achieved with a speed limit or other measures, such large quantities can only be saved ad hoc by not using cars and lorries,” Wissing said, adding that driving bans on all weekends would be necessary to reach such an emissions reduction.

Germany’s transport sector has repeatedly missed its targets under the national climate law, which contains annual sector-specific emissions limits and mandates responsible ministries to ensure compliance with their targets or correct excess emissions through additional measures.

Last year, the three-party government coalition agreed to fundamentally reform the law, initially passed in 2019, to replace the sector-specific emissions limits with an all-encompassing target.

This was a key demand of Wissing’s liberal FDP party, which argues that transport emissions are the responsibility of all citizens, rather than of one ministry, and wants to avoid contentious interventions in individual’s mobility.

In line with its pro-market viewpoint, the party also argues that emissions reductions should be done where they cost the least, which would for now be primarily outside the transport sector.

Reform of climate law stuck

However, the reform of the climate law is currently stuck in the legislative procedure, which Wissing blames on the Green party, another ruling coalition member. Green politicians fear that economy-wide targets will not provide the accountability needed to sufficiently drive down emissions.

Wissling argues that unless the reform is passed soon, he would need to follow the existing rules, which would leave him no choice but to impose driving bans.

Driving bans are “what people will face if the Greens get their way,” he said in the radio interview.

“Those like Greenpeace and the Greens, who always say that the Climate Protection Act must remain as it is, may now be shocked by the consequences of their policies, but you can’t simply ignore reality,” Wissing added.

However, the Greens were quick to rebuff the minister’s claim.

“We, Greens, do not consider driving bans to be a sensible measure. It is not responsible for a minister to stir up unfounded fears,” Katharina Dröge, head of the Green group in the German Bundestag, said in a statement.

“Instead, Volker Wissing should do his job and finally make sensible proposals for more climate protection in the transport sector,” she said, adding that the Greens “have been waiting two years for the transport minister to act”.

Dirk Messner, head of the German Environmental Agency (UBA), also refuted the minister’s claim, saying that “of course we don’t need driving bans”.

“Such bans are also not seriously discussed and frighten people for no reason,” Messner told the magazine SPIEGEL.

Slow progress on transport emissions

On Monday (15 April), the Council of Experts on Climate Change, an expert group commissioned by the government, will present findings on overall 2023 greenhouse gas emissions, alongside more specific comments on “selected” sectors, which likely include transport given its legacy of missing the targets.

According to UBA data, the transport sector emitted 146 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2023, accounting for 22% of overall emissions and 13 million tonnes more than foreseen in the climate law.

Nevertheless, Germany achieved its overall climate target and is also on track to do so in the coming years, mainly due to declining emissions in electricity generation as the country boosts renewables such as solar and wind.

In transport, however, things are going much more slowly.

The number of newly sold electric cars dropped by 5% in the first quarter of 2024 after the abrupt end of a bonus scheme, which was scrapped in December 2023 as part of the government’s agreement to solve its budget crisis.

The roll-out of charging infrastructure – which is Wissing’s responsibility – is also too slow, and has to triple in speed to reach the government’s target of one million charging points by 2030, according to the car industry association VDA.

There is “a whole range of things that might be possible [to boost electric mobility], from discounts on charging current to a few more visible programmes for a faster ramp-up of the charging infrastructure,” VDA’s managing director Andreas Rade said on Thursday (11 April).

Wissing, for his part, praised the introduction of the €49 monthly subscription ticket for all regional public transport and a large investment package for national railway operator Deutsche Bahn.

“I fight for climate protection, but at the same time I tell people the truth,” he said.

[Edited by Donagh Cagney/Zoran Radosavljevic]


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