Smoke emission from factory pipes

How cars and coal made Germany’s air pollution problem a bad joke

Germans aren’t especially known for their sense of humour, but how about this one:

“NOx NOx”

“Who’s there?”

“A European leader on environmental protection”

Earlier this week the German Chancellor faced her challenger, Martin Schultz, in a one-on-one debate ahead of the upcoming elections on 24 September.

During the debate, Mrs Merkel was asked about air pollution. This is what she said:

“The breach of pollution limits in around 80 cities in Germany is only very indirectly linked to the breach of trust by the automotive industry. Even if all of the cars were emitting at the approved levels… we would still have environmental problems. And that’s why we need to take additional actions.”

Back in 2015, after the ‘Dieselgate’ story broke, it didn’t take long for a link to be made between the additional pollution pumped out of diesel cars and the breaches of EU legal air quality limits in cities across Europe.

But Mrs Merkel just accepted that Germany would be breaking EU air pollution laws even without the real world emissions and test-cheating scandals.

This is an important admission because earlier this year eight European Union countries, including Germany, wrote to the European Commission claiming that extra emissions from diesel cars meant meeting their national pollution targets would be impossible.

Rather than accepting defeat and blaming the automotive industry, these countries asked for their annual national pollution limits for nitrogen oxides (NOx) to be retroactively raised.

It’s what EEB Policy Officer Margherita Tolotto described at the time as:

“Missing a shot, moving the goalposts, and then claiming to have scored the goal.”

The German government applied to move its goalposts because, they argued, they didn’t know about the extra NOx their cars were making.

But Mrs Merkel just admitted other European air quality safeguards would have been breached in Germany anyway.

So the German government knew it wasn’t doing enough to reduce NOx emissions.

In fact, while cars are exacerbating the situation in inner cities, the largest individual sources of NOx pollution are coal-burning power plants.

And when it comes to coal power, Germany’s record on NOx is arguably even worse.

Hard coal plants in Germany are fitted with equipment that could reduce their NOx emissions, but thanks to polluter-friendly limits set in the plants’ permits, they have no legal obligation to make sure it is effectively operating.

More pollution means more profit, so extra NOx is unnecessarily pumped into the air.

What’s worse, in April the German government joined a toxic bloc of coal-addicted eastern European countries to try stop tighter EU limits on pollution from coal.

This unprecedented move was backed by the German environment ministry, which explicitly stated that the new rules would required too much action from brown coal plants to cut their… you guessed it… NOx emissions.

Luckily for German air quality, the new rules were adopted anyway. They will mean the dirtiest plants in Europe will now need to clean up, or more likely, close down.

Of course, as with all bad jokes, the punchline here is no laughing matter.  The damaging effects of air pollution on human health and the environment are well known.

It’s now up to whichever parties form the next German government to end this joke and start to get serious about air pollution.