BERLIN — In a case that pitted environmental groups against Germany’s powerful auto industry, the country’s highest administrative court ruled on Tuesday that vehicles can be banned from some city streets as part of efforts to improve air quality in urban areas.
The case before the Federal Administrative Court has dominated public discussion in Germany because of its potential to deal a severe blow to the country’s auto industry three years after it was found to have lied about the pollution levels emitted by its cherished diesel technology.
The court ruled that cities could enact such bans, said Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental and consumer rights organization that set the lawsuits in motion. The ruling could have far-reaching consequences for German automakers, who bet their futures on diesel technology they sell to consumers as particularly climate friendly, while rigging software in their cars to pass stringent emissions tests.
The court was called on to decide whether cities had the right to ban certain vehicles, mostly those using diesel, from traveling on streets where air quality levels are persistently bad.
Frustrated with the lack of progress in improving air quality in about 70 of the country’s most polluted cities, Deutsche Umwelthilfe brought lawsuits against the local governments, demanding that they uphold the standards set by the European Union.
“For me, there are parallels to the tobacco industry that for decades trivialized facts about the damaging effects of cigarette smoke to health, despite studies to the contrary,” said Jürgen Resch, managing director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe. “The damage posed to human health by nitrogen oxide from diesel motors is at the moment the last remaining air pollution issue that needs to be addressed.”
They included Stuttgart, home to Porsche and Mercedes, as well as Düsseldorf. In 2016, a lower court in Stuttgart ruled in favor of the organization’s argument that the only way to effectively drop the levels of nitrogen oxide gasses in urban areas was to keep those vehicles responsible for the pollution, most of them diesels, off the streets.
But the state of Baden-Württemberg challenged the lower court’s ruling, and a court in North Rhine-Westphalia urged a higher court to weigh in, arguing that the federal government should be involved in such measures.
The ruling allowing such bans — already popular among Germany’s European neighbors — could open the floodgates, allowing for a raft of new measures in other cities across the country. But resistance to steps that curb drivers’ rights in Germany remains deeply rooted. Diesel technology was developed in the country, and it accounts for many of the 800,000 jobs in the German auto industry.
Municipal groups have warned that the impact of allowing bans could be fatal for inner cities, where delivery trucks, repair and emergency workers, as well as most residents, rely on their diesel-fired vehicles for access.
Diesel has long been popular in Germany, where it was sold for decades as a cleaner alternative to gas-fired engines on the argument that diesel cars were more environment friendly because they emit less carbon dioxide by burning fuel more efficiently. There are more than 15 million diesel-fired cars on German streets, according to Federal Motor Transport Authority, many of them older models that are viewed as major polluters.
But in 2015, United States authorities revealed that Volkswagen had duped consumers by rigging its vehicles to pass emissions tests: software reduced emissions during tests in a controlled environment but turned off under normal driving conditions.
Since then, the scandal has widened, most recently through revelations of a study in which VW forced monkeys to inhale fumes from a Beetle in an effort to prove they were not harmful.
The German government ordered all carmakers to fix the problem, and they responded by proposing software that would keep emissions at laboratory levels while driving on the open road. But environmental groups have argued that these have failed to sufficiently reduce pollution.
An alternative fix would be to retrofit some of the older vehicles, at a cost of 1,400 to 3,300 euros ($1,725 to $4,060) and could cut diesel pollution by up to 70 percent, according to Germany’s auto safety group, ADAC.
Already, customers are turning away from diesel technology. The latest figures show a drop of more than 17 percent in the number of diesel-burning cars registered in January compared with the number in December. The figures reflect a trend established in the previous year, and the authorities fear they indicate a threat to the industry.
In addition to Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, Munich is also considering a ban. They would join European cities including Madrid and Athens, which have already said they would ban all diesel vehicles by 2025. Britain and France have also said they want to end domestic sales of new diesel vehicles by 2040.