'I don't want to harm the German automotive industry'

Environment minister Juergen Trittin tells about the discussion over the new exhaust-emission limits

Berlin. German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin hopes to introduce Euro 5 auto exhaust rules by 2010, which will significantly reduce emission limits for diesel vehicles. The "green" politician spoke to Automobilwoche about particle filters, tax advantages and his fleet of natural gas business cars.

Q. Do we really need a discussion over emission limits for diesel vehicles right now?

A. Regarding the range of air pollutants, soot particles - and micro particles also belong to that group - are health risk No. 1. This year we have a pollution level in Germany of approximately 8,400 kilotons caused by passenger cars and nearly 17,000 kilotons caused by heavy trucks. Should the demand for diesel vehicles continue to increase at the current rate, by 2020 the particle pollution caused by passenger cars will have risen by 230 percent. We can not accept that. We will not be able to handle this problem if only a few vehicles are fitted with particle filters.

Q. Nearly all automobile manufacturers will present at the IAA vehicles which are fitted with particle filters Did you act a little rashly?

A. I don't think so [considering] the response I have had from the automotive industry. Yes, the manufacturers will present individual vehicles which are fitted with particle filters. However, I believe that they only do that to find out whether there is a market for that. But this is not about markets. To make myself clear -- It is not about whether there is a soot filter available on the list of extras. Or whether one can retrofit SUVs with filters for 400 euros. This is a ridiculous argument when talking about this price category.

Q. So what is it about?

A. It is about what we can do to save people who do not choose to drive a car themselves from the harmful effects of road traffic. I mean children above all. I believe that it is out of question that we should leave this decision to the market alone.

Q. And what is your answer?

A. To help those people we have developed a system that proved to be very worthwhile. We are setting limits that are valid throughout Europe.

Q. Does the expert Erich Wichmann cause unnecessary panic when he says that soot particles are the cause for 14,000 statistical deaths?

A. It is a commonly used method in epidemiology to measure results by referring to their levels of life risk. The findings match the reports by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Most environmental politicians are against diesel. I am not against it, because diesel engines are much more efficient than gasoline engines. If we are aiming at saving fuel then we should not condemn diesel.

Q. However, you still risk possibly damaging the German automotive industry through the discussion about new emission limits for diesel cars.

A. I believe that the automotive industry harms itself. The discussion about the three-way catalyst proved that the ones who try to stand in the way of foreseeable technical developments instead of supporting them and making use of innovations cause damage to themselves.

Q. The industry is also worried that the discussion about diesel exhaust emissions will damage their plans to export more diesel vehicles to the USA.

A. You know yourself how many diesel vehicles they sell in the US - hardly any. My opinion is that the industry will only stand a chance in the USA if it offers vehicles that are fitted with particle filters. Otherwise they will get into trouble with the US liability laws.

Q. Particle filters increase the fuel consumption which in turn increases the emission of carbon dioxide. Does this not jeopardize the industry's voluntary commitment to significantly decrease CO2 emissions by 2008?

A. Regarding the voluntary commitment the automotive industry should definitely look at how it will be able to reach its goal. I am not convinced that the targeted reduction in fuel consumption will be reached - at the moment it doesn't look good. They would have to significantly decrease the average fleet consumption. The increased fuel consumption that might result from the use of particle filters is relatively small in comparison to the consumption increase due to diesel vehicles becoming heavier. This conflict over the reduction in fuel consumption and exhaust-emission purification is only a cover-up for the fact that in certain market sectors due to the increased weight of vehicles not everything is about the consumption reduction but about cars' increased performance and comfort.

Q. Are you considering also introducing a toll for passenger cars should the industry not reach its target?

A. One step after the other. Because of the introduction of toll for heavy trucks, in the future we will have some idea of who drives where. But there is still a major problem regarding personal data protection. We have to first gain some experience with the truck toll and then we will see what the next step will be.

Q. Will there be tax relief for diesel vehicles fitted with particle filters?

A. I do not intend to dictate certain engineering methods. Engineering needs to be done by engineers and not by politicians. But I will not start to make promises regarding tax relief for Euro 5 cars. We want to set standards which will be compulsory from 2010. Those who behave in an ecologically conscious way will be rewarded with tax relief. It is like this: you give priority to innovation, you put it on the market on a large scale and you will reduce costs. This is a common way of taking modern technology forward and of taking over the lead within certain market sectors. I was really surprised to be criticized by the automotive industry for suggesting this common strategy.

Q. Does that mean that you want to help them with your initiative?

A. I don't want to harm the German automotive industry. On the contrary. I know about the importance of Germany being a manufacturing location and I know that nothing will get better if the production of cars is moved to other countries. But I believe that we have a win-win situation -- we can improve the air quality and at the same time take the German automotive industry to the top through innovative engineering.

Q. Which role do alternative fuels play?

A. I try to protect the environment and therefore I know about the resources available on this planet. The answer lies in the increased use of renewable energy. As it is difficult to power road vehicles with solar panels or sails we need a different energy source. In the long term this will be hydrogen but in the short term natural gas is a very interesting and above all a realistic alternative.

Q. What car do you drive?

A. In Berlin I currently drive a rental car. My business car in Bonn is a Volvo fueled with natural gas. We have two of those in our fleet. And since our natural gas-fueled Fiat Multipla was destroyed in an accident we will probably replace it with an Opel Zafira, also fueled with natural gas.