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Germany's Future Transport Policy: Unity of Purpose, Uncertainty in Implementation

Read this article in German.

The German federal election is on the horizon, and for this election cycle the parties have paid particular attention to climate policy and climate protection. A central aspect of climate protection is mobility and transport policy – be it the future of the internal combustion engine, the promotion of alternative drive systems, car-free inner cities or mobility concepts for urban and rural areas.

The transport sector is currently responsible for around 30 percent of total final energy consumption and about one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany. This contrasts with increasingly ambitious climate policy goals, which are derived not least from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In this article, Paula Böcken, transport policy expert at Bernstein Public Policy, takes a look at the election programs of the political parties, with a special focus on road transport. For all parties, the design of motorized individual transport (MIV) and local public transport (ÖPNV) plays an important role. In order to achieve the climate protection goals, the following questions stand in focus:

  1. How can MIV and ÖPNV be made more environmentally compatible?
  2. Which technologies should be promoted and to what extent?
  3. How should the climate-friendly development of private motorized transport and public transport be financed?

A closer look at the election program and the parties’ most recent positions reveals that they are united by the basic tenor that emissions must be reduced in the long term. However, there are clear differences in terms of implementation and timetable, which are introduced and examined below.

How can MIV and public transport be made more environmentally compatible?

The political status quo pursues the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector by at least 42 percent by 2030 compared to 1990. This is reflected in the current federal government’s graduated CO2 tax, which shows its effect on fuel prices and will result in a price of 55 euros per ton emitted by 2025.

The expansion path for the electrification of MIV through tax benefits, subsidies or massive support for domestic battery development and production has also been set in motion. But what further developments can be expected in the coming legislative period?

  • The Greens want to greatly accelerate the trend toward fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars. The opposition party is already calling for the CO2 price to be increased to 60 euros per ton by 2023. In addition, the party is pursuing the goal of only allowing zero-emission cars from 2030 onwards, as Germany’s traffic is to be completely CO2-neutral by 2050.
  • The SPD also takes a clear position on climate-neutral mobility, but does not define a framework, instead setting the goal of reducing passenger traffic by car.
  • The FDP specifies the goal of placing the legislative focus on technology-open laws and regulations in vehicle construction, while unilateral subsidies and specifications are to be ended and bans are considered non-progressive and unsustainable.
  • The Union sets a target of reducing Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 compared to the 1990 reference year. However, car production remains a priority and should therefore be made more sustainable.

All parties are thus united in their goal of developing lower-emission MIV. The SPD and the Greens want to steer this politically, while the CDU/CSU and the FDP are focusing on market developments.

Great consensus on the urban mobility mix

The Greens, the CDU/CSU and the SPD are united in their positioning on the reform of road traffic law. This is intended to give local authorities more say in innovative traffic concepts and generally create a basic mobility offer that meets demand.

Cycling and walking are also to be given a greater share of public space. There is a high degree of unanimity on strengthening local public transport. In addition, all parties are in favor of innovative transport concepts such as car sharing, bike sharing and e-scooters. The CDU/CSU, SPD and Greens also support the idea of a 365-euro ticket and ticket-free local public transport. This is intended to increase the number of passengers on local public transport and strengthen connections to public transport in rural areas as well. The Greens are additionally calling for train stations to be upgraded to mobility stations and for the combination of bicycles and public transport to be improved. Mobility stations are also supported by the Union.

As a result of these approaches, sustainable transport development at the municipal level is likely to become much more important in the 20th legislative period. It is interesting to note that the trend toward giving municipalities more and more powers in the spirit of subsidiarity seems to be continuing.

Which technologies should be promoted and to what extent?

The German government is currently promoting the purchase of electric vehicles. It has also been actively supporting battery research for some years. The focus is on materials and process technology for lithium-ion systems. As part of a new funding directive (NIP II), the funding rate for commercial vehicles with fuel cell drive systems is now being increased to 80 percent. In addition, up to 400 hydrogen filling stations are to be available in Germany by 2023. Both technologies are also of interest for the next legislature.

  • The SPD wants to develop Germany into the lead market for hydrogen technologies by 2030 (including for low-CO2 passenger cars) and sets the goal of greatly expanding the power grids and charging infrastructure. By 2030, at least 15 million passenger cars in Germany should be fully electric.
  • The CDU/CSU also emphasizes the need for greater expansion of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. The expansion of the charging infrastructure is also crucial for the further development of electrified transport. The network of charging stations is to be expanded in such a way that charging options provide incentives for the switch. In addition, the party wants to set the legal framework via the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) so that the electricity tax is set at the European minimum.
  • The FDP supports the nationwide expansion of fast charging stations and interoperable payment structures for e-mobility.
  • The Greens are pursuing the goal of fully aligning the development of the automotive industry with electromobility.

Again, the approaches differ in political and market governance.

This poses clear obstacles to decision-making. There is a tendency to promote e-mobility, however there is still a great deal of disagreement about how to finance the projects.

How will the climate-friendly development of private motorized transport and public transport be financed?

Funding for the German transport infrastructure currently comes from various sources. Most of the funding provided comes from tax revenue, just under 1/3 comes from truck tolls, and there is additional funding from the European Union. The following steps emerge from the current election programs to promote the climate-friendly development of MIV and public transport:

According to the Greens, the purchase of emission-free cars should be made easier via a bonus-malus system in the vehicle tax. This means that climate-friendly cars should become cheaper and climate-damaging cars more expensive.

The diesel subsidy is also to be ended and company car taxation “ecologically restructured.” However, this would prove difficult in a coalition with the FDP, which does not want to support subsidies such as the purchase premium. The SPD, on the other hand, wants to promote progress in expanding charging stations for electric cars, where necessary, with supply requirements and government expansion. These disagreements will not be easy to resolve either.

Implications for the 20th legislative term

Based on the previous programs and since coalition constellations that include CDU/CSU, Greens, SPD and FDP are the most likely political constellations, the following can be deduced:

  1. The Greens are expected to become part of the governing coalition. This will make coalition negotiations more difficult due to fundamental differences in the pursuit of goals, particularly with the CDU/CSU and FDP. The fundamental question of whether the market or the state should steer will have to be clarified, particularly with regard to issues such as the ramp-up of electromobility.
  2. In this context, it will be important to see which party secures the Ministry of Transport. The Greens have a number of high-profile transport politicians, and the issue has played an important role for the party since its founding. The CDU can now also envisage the transport ministry - also because the sister party, the CSU, is no longer said to be very interested after 13 years and increasing difficulties of late.
  3. The SPD’s plans are increasingly green-oriented, and a traffic light coalition would thus pursue strongly climate protection-oriented goals. The divided state-oriented approach clearly stands in the way of reaching a consensus with the FDP.

The issue of climate protection holds great potential in the transport sector. While all parties have very similar long-term goals in mind, implementing these and determining the timetable will be the biggest challenge of the coalition negotiations.

The election program phase of the parties is in its final stages. By the end of June, we can expect to see all the parties’ final agreed programs. Until then and beyond, we will keep you regularly updated.

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