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ENVIRONMENT

German city residents sue government over air pollution

Seven residents in Germany are taking the government to court over the poor air quality around their homes, an organisation representing them said on Monday.

Cars, trucks and delivery vehicles drive into Berlin.
Cars, trucks and delivery vehicles drive into Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The residents of Berlin, Duesseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich believe current government legislation is “demonstrably inadequate to protect people’s health”, according to the organisation, Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).

Levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in Germany are up to five times higher than the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to DUH.

The complainants are calling for immediate action to bring about “a reduction in dangerous air pollutants from, among other things, traffic, wood burning and agriculture”, said Juergen Resch, national director of DUH.

“Politicians are doing too little to protect people like me who live on a busy road,” said complainant Volker Becker-Battaglia, from Munich.

This time last year, a new coalition government was elected in Germany on a promise to make environmental concerns one of its top priorities.

READ ALSO: Germany should ditch Christmas lights this year, says environmental group

The Greens entered power for the first time in more than two decades, promising that Germany would end coal power and generate 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

But since then, climate concerns have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, an acute energy crisis and record inflation.

Germany has accelerated plans to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) by sea and has even decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants.

In 2021, climate activists won a landmark victory in Germany when the constitutional court ruled that the government’s climate plans were insufficient and placed an unfair burden on future generations.

German environmental groups also last year announced a legal offensive against car giants Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW over their emissions.

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CLIMATE

US climate subsidies unsettle Germany’s green industry plans

The financial incentives for domestic industries, approved by Washington under the banner of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, have put a question mark over a huge green energy project in the north west of Germany.

US climate subsidies unsettle Germany's green industry plans

An empty field near Heide in a corner of Germany known more for its cabbage farming is the chosen site for a huge battery factory and potential pillar of the country’s future green economy.

Manufacturer Northvolt chose the location in the northern region of Schleswig-Holstein primarily for the abundance of renewable energy produced by the wind whipping in off the North Sea.

With that power the Swedish company hopes to build the “cleanest” battery factory in the world — which would eventually produce cells for one million electric vehicles a year — reducing Europe’s reliance on Chinese manufacturers.

But massive green subsidies on offer in the United States — totalling $370 billion (339 billion euros) — have unsettled the plans and sent European policymakers scrambling to find a response.

The financial incentives for domestic industries, approved by Washington under the banner of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, have put a question mark over the Northvolt project in Heide.

Combined with the surge in energy prices in Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Northvolt was “at a point where we can give priority to expansion in the United States” with other projects delayed, CEO Peter Carlsson said in October.

‘Committed’

In Heide, officials were “surprised” by Northvolt’s comments but remain optimistic that the factory will be built.

The potential for thousands of jobs and creating a new local industry was “very important” for the region, as well as Germany and Europe, Heide mayor Oliver Schmidt-Gutzat told AFP.

Germany’s future as an “auto nation” depended on having a domestic industrial base capable of building “the most important components in terms of added value”, including batteries, local IG Metall union leader Martin Bitter told AFP.

“Europe has to react” to stop industries and jobs from drifting towards the United States, the union official said, calling for more state support.

For its part, Northvolt remained “committed to its expansion in Europe”, a spokesman said. The battery maker was not “stepping on the brake” but pushing forward with discussions on the factory, Bjoern Joergensen, a local government official representing the communities around Heide, told AFP.

Were European officials to agree a response to the IRA, “then they (Northvolt) are more likely to be here”, said mayor Schmidt-Gutzat.

‘Opportunity’

Other industries have started to review their investments. Solar panel makers, such as Italy’s 3Sun and Meyer Burger from Switzerland have already announced the expansion or installation of new projects in the United States.

Dirtier sectors are also exercising pressure on governments to back their efforts to decarbonise.

“I think matching the IRA is almost non-negotiable,” said ArcelorMittal CEO Aditya Mittal, whose group plans to invest 1.7 billion euros to reduce emissions at its sites in the industrial heartlands of northern France.

The European Commission on Wednesday put forward its first proposals in response to the IRA, including a controversial relaxing of state aid rules.

Officials have floated the possibility of creating a new EU fund to back green industries, but the idea has already been strongly opposed by some member states.

“Starting a large-scale and excessive subsidy competition with the United States is not government policy,” German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said at the end of January.

Similarly, German industry is hoping for a response but has warned against the risks of a trade confrontation with the United States.

The two sides needed to hold “discussions between friends”, said Siegfried Russwurm, head of the influential BDI industrial lobby. “Transatlantic cooperation is more important than ever.”

Karine Vernier, head of sustainable investment fund InnoEnergy in France, said the EU should see the US plans “not as a threat, but an opportunity” to boost its own green infrastructure. “The Americans created the IRA for reasons of energy sovereignty, Europe must do the same,” she told AFP.

READ MORE: How disasters linked to climate crisis have cost Germany tens of billions

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