Why you should care
Veteran environmentalist Jürgen Resch has a string of legal victories against his country’s car giants.
Jürgen Resch is upending the German car industry— one court case at a time.
The white-haired veteran of the country’s environmental movement is behind a sweeping legal campaign to uphold air quality by imposing driving bans in German cities. His main target: diesel cars made by the likes of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW.
Resch has attracted both admiration and opprobrium but there is no dispute over his record: an unbroken string of courtroom victories, millions of furious vehicle owners and an industry reeling from reputational and financial blows, with potential losses running to billions of euros.
At a time when German carmakers are fighting U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to hit their exports — leaders of the three leading manufacturers went to Washington this month to try to assuage U.S. concerns — Resch’s campaign has exposed them to a wearying domestic battle.
The fact that we force the car industry to abide by the law is what will secure its future.
But Resch, head of campaign group Environmental Action Germany (DUH), insists he simply wants to uphold the law. “We have the strange situation that we as an [environmental organization] are not fighting for tighter limits and tougher standards. We are fighting to ensure that existing law is applied,” he says. “We are trying to make sure that the state sticks to its own laws.”
According to official data, 65 German cities fail European Union air quality standards due to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a leading cause of respiratory disease. Diesel cars, which typically emit significantly more NO2 than gas-driven vehicles, are seen as a prime cause.
What makes Resch stand out as an environmental campaigner is that his battles take place mainly in court, where the DUH has challenged dozens of local governments to enforce the nitrogen dioxide limit and ban diesel cars from cities’ most heavily polluted streets.
The DUH has won 12 rulings ordering cities to impose such driving bans, including in Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Essen and Mainz. In total the group has filed 30 cases, while another four cases are to be filed.
The economic impact has been severe: Sales of diesel cars have collapsed this year, and the value of used vehicles has plummeted. Germany’s car giants fear that a vital part of the market — which they have dominated for years — is crumbling.
Industry leaders’ say the NO2 limit is both arbitrary and too stringent, but such complaints cut no ice with Resch.
“These thresholds were agreed [on] 20 years ago, and now that we are finally pushing for implementation people are trying to discredit the threshold value.… It is everyone’s right to try to change the rules. But as long as the rules are what they are, they have to be obeyed,” Resch says.
In his attacks on the car industry, Resch does not mince words. He likens German carmakers to “bank robbers” and “cheats,” in reference to the “Dieselgate” scandal surrounding the manipulation of diesel emission tests. He is just as critical of German politicians, including prominent members of the Greens, who he believes have failed to discipline the country’s most powerful industry.
“People ask me what I expect from politicians,” Resch says. “My answer is always: nothing. Governments both at the federal and the regional level have great difficulties to face down large industries such as the car industry, the banks and the pharmaceutical and chemicals industry.”
One bone of contention is the car industry’s campaign to avoid costly retrofits of millions of diesel cars to lower NO2 emissions. Resch and other campaigners argue such hardware solutions are unavoidable to meet the emissions rules, even if they would impose significant costs on automakers. Resch estimates that some 11 million vehicles in Germany require retrofits costing about 1,500 euros. That would leave Germany’s carmakers, which account for two-thirds of the diesel fleet, with a bill of at least 10 billion euros.
For Resch, that does not seem excessive: “Do you know how much EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] the German car industry made this year? Thirty-five billion euros!”
In a country where pride in the car industry goes well beyond the sector itself, Resch and his campaign have faced significant criticism. Industry representatives tend not to criticize the DUH in public, but German politicians and commentators have recently stepped up scrutiny and criticism of Resch and his activities. Last month an influential regional branch of the governing Christian Democrats called for the DUH to be stripped of its charity status and its ability to appear as a party in court.
But Resch is convinced that — as with past environmental innovations such as particle filters and sulfur-free gas — the industry will ultimately benefit from upping its game.
“The fact that we force the car industry to abide by the law is what will secure its future. We believe that a car industry that is built on lies and deceit and bad technology, and that evades control by both the state and civil society, has no future,” Resch says.
The internal combustion engine can survive as a “bridge solution” for a period only if industry commits to producing much cleaner cars, says Resch — who drives a French, fully electric Renault Zoe.
Read more: Is this the death knell for diesel? Not so fast.
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