Can German auto regulators usher in the zero-emissions age?

The country’s federal council, or Bundesrat, has resolved to ban all gas and diesel-powered cars by 2030.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
The charging plug of an electric Volkswagen Passat car is pictured at charging station at a VW dealer in Berlin, Germany, February 2, 2016.

The internal combustion engine, which powered the world’s automobile boom, could soon be a relic of the past – at least in Germany.

The country’s federal council, or Bundesrat, has resolved to ban all gas and diesel-powered cars by 2030. According to the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, “only zero-emission passenger vehicles will be approved” for use after that time.

By enacting such a ban, Germany could herald a new automotive age. About 15 percent of global emissions come from fossil fuel-burning vehicles, so to eliminate those vehicles completely is to put a considerable dent in our carbon footprint. But legislators may encounter a myriad of legal, technological, and cultural challenges along the way.

The Bundesrat, which includes representatives from all 16 German states, is just one half of the country’s bicameral parliament. All legislation approved through the Bundesrat must then be approved by the Bundestag, or Federal Diet, and vice-versa.

But the council’s proposed ban isn’t really a legislative act, so much as it is a call to action. Germany is a member of the European Union, so any widespread vehicle ban would need to be passed by the supranational body before taking effect nationally. Here, the council is simply appealing to the EU Commission in Brussels, which does have the power to pass such a directive.

That said, Germany is among the most influential members of the EU. In many cases, EU regulations are modeled after previously-enacted German regulations. So the country may be able to leverage its clout to pass a higher-level ban.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Cars are a pervasive cultural presence in the land of the autobahn, and a ban on internal combustion engines would change that automotive landscape drastically. Many of the world’s most prominent automakers – including Porsche, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes – are based in Germany.

But the tide may already be changing.

Many German automakers are already going all-electric. As BMW loses its grip on the luxury vehicle market, the company hopes to compete with Tesla by developing its own self-driving electric car. Volkswagen’s latest offering, an all-electric hatchback called the ID, could go into production as early as 2020.

Electric car sales rose globally in 2016, even as gas prices plummeted. Some say the change was borne of some sense of corporate responsibility on the part of automakers. But government programs also played a considerable role. In February, Ontario expanded rebates and other incentives for plug-in electric vehicles. Similar programs followed globally.

The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote last year:

… the biggest players in the electric car game may turn out to be a group of Chinese companies. China represents a huge and growing domestic automobile market as its people become more affluent. Combine that with a serious problem: the air quality in China. The Chinese government is prepared to go to great lengths to put more nonpolluting cars on the road.

But environmentalist appeals alone won’t kill the gas-guzzler. Automakers now emphasize the performance of electric cars alongside fuel efficiency. “Near-silent operation and instant torque delivery” are now winning over drivers, as the zero-emission era draws near.

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