Germany Holds Summit On Car Pollution
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Top German officials are meeting with the CEOs of German car manufacturers and influential car industry lobbyists today in what's being called an emergency diesel summit, an emergency because a scandal over carmakers cheating on emissions has spiraled. And it's become an issue in Germany's elections next month. Critics call Chancellor Angela Merkel the chief lobbyist for the German auto industry. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is with us in Berlin.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ailsa.
CHANG: So tell us. What do German officials hope to achieve at this summit today?
NELSON: Well, this is supposed to be a gathering of German government officials and the CEOs of Germany's car manufacturers, influential car industry lobbyists. And they're supposed to be coming up with concrete steps to reduce air pollution in Germany that's caused by car and truck emissions.
But what really seems to be happening here, just based on what's emerged in recent days, is that it's more about mitigating damage to the German automobile industry, which is, you know, in this ever-growing diesel scandal which you mention. It's important to note that absent from this summit are any environmentalists or consumer advocates.
CHANG: Well, can you backtrack and explain the allegations? I mean, the way I understand it, a cartel of automakers supposedly came up with a secret multibillion-dollar plan to deceive the world. Is that right?
NELSON: Yeah, I mean, it's like a Hollywood script almost.
NELSON: The latest, I mean - you know, first, you have the diesel emissions scandal that started two years ago. And then most recently, there are these allegations that came out in Der Spiegel magazine that VW, Daimler and BMW, as well as the VW subsidiaries, Porsche and Audi, had been colluding for decades to fix prices on supplies and technologies, including diesel emission systems. And there's also renewed accusations against Chancellor Merkel's government that members of it are colluding with the auto industry.
So this really shows this growing perception here and abroad that the German government isn't balancing its obligations to consumers and the environment versus its obligations to the automotive industry, which accounts for every fifth job in Germany. There was a German parliamentary inquiry into the diesel emissions scandal that was headed by Herbert Behrens, who is with Germany's the Left political party. And he told German broadcaster ARD the collusion allegations in response are following the same format as what he saw in the diesel emissions scandal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARD BROADCAST)
HERBERT BEHRENS: (Speaking German).
NELSON: He says the German government's first reaction back then, too, was, we don't know anything about it. The second was, we need to clear this up. And the third was, the problem has been solved, even though nothing has.
CHANG: Is there any truth to any of these allegations?
NELSON: Well, that's still being determined. And there'll probably be another parliamentary inquiry once the elections are over. But it's important to remember that many top German government officials also have held top posts in the auto industry and vice versa. For example, the German foreign minister used to sit on the board of directors at VW. And a key strategist for Chancellor Merkel in her upcoming re-election campaign was a top official at Opel until recently.
CHANG: So does this have any connection to the announcement recently of a ban on gas and diesel car sales by London and Paris?
NELSON: Well, that summit was planned a couple of months before - or this summit, I should say, was planned a couple of months before those announcements and appears to be more linked to what's happening with German diesel cars in terms of court rulings in these frequent revelations.
But it is definitely embarrassing for Germany. I mean, you have to remember that it's the economic powerhouse of Europe and a car manufacturing hub. And so to be following London and Paris and to be focusing only on diesel technology is not something that is ideal, shall we say.
NELSON: Even more embarrassing is going to be if the German government ends up letting carmakers avoid more costly hardware changes to vehicles instead of opting for mandatory software changes or updates, which would affect fewer vehicles but wouldn't cut pollution either. And that's widely expected to come out of this summit.
CHANG: So in the 30 seconds that we have left, what happens if this summit fails to come up with a concrete emissions cutting plan?
NELSON: What's been happening is that the German courts have intervened, as well as municipal officials. Last week in Stuttgart, an administrative court ruled in favor of a ban on diesel vehicles in the city's downtown area after an environmental group filed a lawsuit. And so it's very possible that you're going to see more of those court cases and municipal officials taking action to try and just ban vehicles on their own and not waiting for the German government in Berlin.
CHANG: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Germany. Thanks, Soraya.
NELSON: You're welcome.
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