German love affair with diesel shows no sign of fading

Germany's love affair with the diesel engine shows no sign of flagging, full-year registrations show, despite the emissions-rigging scandal that has rocked Europe's biggest carmaker Volkswagen.

Green campaigners still attack the self-igniters for producing high levels of toxic nitrogen-oxide air pollutants, yet cheap fuel in Europe continues to boost the popularity of diesel motors. Sales of diesel-powered cars are buoyant across Europe.

At the same time, interest in all-electric cars in Germany is minimal. Last year a grand total of 12,363 electric-only cars were sold, compared to 3.2 million cars with combustion engines, nearly half of them diesels.

Sales of hybrids which combine a combustion engine with an electric motor have gone up but are still comparatively low.

Compared to petrol engines diesels produce less carbon dioxide CO2, which is the primary greenhouse gas driving the process of climate change.

On the downside, the output of nitrogen oxide NOx output by diesels is higher. This leads to dirtier air, since nitrous oxide reacts with sunlight in the atmosphere and changes into ozone.

Carmakers have focussed on cutting carbon dioxide, since converting NOx into less harmful substances is harder to achieve.

VW chose to develop a NOx trap to soak up the pollutant, but they also programmed the device to switch off, hence the emissions scandal.

Germans are well aware that diesels could be greener, but it has not put them off buying self-igniters. Cheap fuel plays a part, while road tax on diesels is also much lower in Germany.

Modern diesel engines are also seen in Europe as being as clean and efficient as their petrol counterparts. Diesel motors generally last longer too.

Experts blame the German government for failing to wean Germans off the diesel. Taxes on diesel fuel are still much lower than those for petrol, which keeps diesel cheaper at the pumps.

Despite a higher level of road tax for diesels in Germany, running a self-igniter is still cheaper for drivers who cover higher mileages.

According to the Duisburg-based Car-Institute, the tax break for diesel owners has unleashed a "a veritable diesel boom," said director Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer.

Berlin has missed the opportunity to reform diesel taxes and promote zero-emission electric cars into the bargain, said the engineer.

"Diesels emit anything up to five times more nitrous oxide in city driving than the figures given in the sales brochures claim," said Dudenhoeffer.

If the state does not intervene, the already poor air quality in many German cities will deteriorate, said the expert.

Carmakers are trapped between a rock and a hard place. They need diesel engines in order to comply with legal targets on fleet CO2 emissions. The targets take into account the average CO2 emissions of all the cars from a particular brand.

One in two new cars sold in western Europe is a diesel and half of these are made in German factories.

"If we were to dispense with diesels altogether, we would have to make up for the sales shortfall," said Daimler's technical boss Thomas Weber. Most carmakers do not have enough zero-emission technology up their sleeves to compensate.

The only work-around for carmakers is to come up with cleaner cars and that means developing all-electric propulsion.

Regardless of how "climate-friendly" diesels are compared to a petrol engine with the same power rating, there is no getting around the need for more electric propulsion, said Greenpeace at the recent Paris climate summit.

"We must move away from oil-fired individual transportation towards post-fossil-fuel mobility," reads a statement from the pressure group.

Meanwhile all-electric cars remain dogged by heavy batteries, a lack of charging infrastructure and insufficient range.

Berlin wants to see 1 million all-electric and hybrids on the roads by 2020, but the country is a long way from achieving that target.

"As soon as you talk about electric cars, the range issue comes up," said AvD automobile federation chief Ludwig zu Loewenstein.

Last update: Thu, 14/01/2016 - 11:52

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