Nachricht | Gesellschaftliche Alternativen Report | Lies, Damned Lies, and Emissions: Volkswagen, the German Export Model, and the Myth of the ‘Climate Chancellor’

Germany is not the climate policy pioneer as which the country is often seen and as which it likes to present itself. The Volkswagen affair demonstrates this quite clearly.

December 7 2015 | 4:00-6:00 pm |"Climate Action Zone" Le 104 | 5 rue Curial,75019 Paris | salle 200

As Germany seems to have become 'everybody's darling' on the international stage, it is worth taking a look behind the scenes at the country's perceived trailblazing role on climate change. The VW exhaust emissions scandal clearly demonstrates that VW was attempting to conquer the automotive world. In particular, VW was endeavouring to increase its revenues, profits, the number of vehicles it sold, and its market share. Above all, however, the company intended to portray itself as the most ecological and sustainable car manufacturer. This, of course, is not only a complete contradiction; it is something that cannot be achieved by legal means. Clearly, then, the VW scandal represents nothing less than fraud on the part of Europe's largest carmaker.

Looking back through history, there has always been a certain level of symbiosis between the government and VW, as well as between the government and the car industry as a whole. VW was founded by Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s, and the company grew with the help of funds confiscated from the unions and forced labour. During World War II, VW stopped producing cars and manufactured the tools needed for war. After the war, the British transferred VW and its fleet of equipment to a trust, which was privatized in 1960 and "people's shares" were issued. Since then, state actors have always been involved in the company in some form or another, and this is clear today from the fact that Lower Saxony's prime minister is currently a member of VW's supervisory board.

'Individualized mobility' is crazy from an environmental point of view, even if achieved using electric motors

Sections of the German elite still view Germany's strength as at least partly defined by its exports. Importantly, Germany's export model is linked to a certain claim to power, with about 1.22 trillion euros (around half of Germany's GDP) generated by the export sector. In 2014, Germany's export surplus amounted to a total of 220 billion euros (7.5 per cent of GDP). Germany's export surplus mainly comes from vehicle exports: in 2014, vehicle exports amounted to 253 billion euros. Unfortunately, there is a clear trend towards vehicles (and thus exports) that consume large amounts of fuel, and this is reflected in the fact that one third of all vehicles are now SUVs. This situation poses a particular problem for the countries on Europe's periphery, as in addition to state budget deficits and (imposed) policies of austerity these countries are now faced with the difficulty of raising funds for environmental policies and alternative energy; this could result in devastating social and ecological consequences.

Between 2002 and 2004, Peter Hartz, then chair of VW, developed reforms aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the German export model. The dramatic social cuts and the consequences that these reforms led to are well known today. The Renewable Energies Act, which was adopted in 2000, provides a further example of the close relationship between government and industry on the issue of climate change. This Act was harshly criticised by the New Social Market Economy Initiative. One of the Initiative's founding members was the employers' association, Gesamtmetall, which also plays a central role in the automotive industry. Since 2006, the proportion of the total number of cars in the world made by German companies has grown significantly, and this trend results in 23 million new German cars annually. More emissions are released in exporting these vehicles than by all other freight transports in Germany put together.

What the heads of state in Paris have said is less important than what they refrained from saying!

The world is looking to Germany and the country's energy transition; everyone is basing their approach on German policy. However, although Germany views combating climate change as the most important issue at COP 21, what Chancellor Merkel has failed to announce is that the country will be pulling out of coal. This, of course, was not an accident, nor was it something that Merkel forgot to mention. Importantly, it seems Germany will not be phasing out coal. And if Germany does not pull out of coal, then no other country will follow suit. Why and how should India and China be expected to phase out their use of coal if Germany doesn't? Unless we all leave coal behind, it will be impossible to prevent global temperatures from rising by less than two degrees Celsius, let alone keep them under the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark. This fact is not even up for discussion at Paris. Nevertheless, Germany continues to promote coal by providing credits around the world and exporting coal technologies.

Of all known energy sources, lignite is the most damaging to the climate: no country in the world promotes lignite as much as Germany. Part of the electricity that Germany generates from lignite is exported. Viewed in this context, Germany's call to combat climate change appears hypocritical and sanctimonious; reason enough to reject the view that Germany is a climate policy pioneer.

The Paris negotiations also involve the questions of who should help states that are faced with their islands sinking into the sea, and how can help be provided. Moreover, who should pay these states with compensation? And, what type of support should they be provided with? Although the answers to these questions remain unclear, humanitarian disasters will certainly occur if we continue along our current path. Despite this, the US continues to demand that the Paris Convention contains a clause preventing countries from the South from claiming compensation.

The money is available

VW, a single company, has an annual turnover of about 200 billion euros and it makes a net profit of about 20 billion euros. Consequently, there is clearly enough money available in the Global North. This is an important point, because it demonstrates that combating climate change and implementing the global energy transition clearly come down to a question of redistribution.

Production at VW has slowed slightly. Moreover, anger is growing and there is increasing sense of resentment directed at the people who committed fraud at the company. Despite this, it has been possible to make the public believe that the fraud at VW was an exception; it has been presented as nothing but the actions of certain individuals. In truth, however, the fraud at VW was based on a structural problem, as the information and processes that enabled the fraud to happen had to pass through the company's main departments.

Over the past few years, various crises have led Hypo Real Estate, Commerzbank and Opel to be nationalised. In theory at least, this would also be possible with VW. Whatever happens, however, it is essential that we resolve the contradiction between maximizing revenues and the need for sustainability.

Fraud is part of the system of maximizing profit

Fraud is part of the system aimed at maximizing profit: everyone does it, and everyone knows it. Just because an advert claims a vehicle's average fuel consumption is five litres, nobody expects this to actually be the case. The same can be said of many other products. Similarly, when products are intentionally designed to break before they should (planned obsolescence), this too is fraud. Whether we are talking about Hamburg's concert hall, Berlin's airport, or the collapsed Cologne City Archive, fraud occurs throughout Germany.

This situation clearly demonstrates that climate change cannot be prevented by voluntary targets. At the same time, phasing out fossil fuels is not only essential, it is non-negotiable. In fact, the consequences of continuing fossil fuel use will be costlier for the world than the energy transition. However, this transition must be accompanied by a change in individual patterns of consumption, and we also need to see changes in the transport sector, which in turn need to be reflected in a new transport policy.

Demands are being made that the people who benefited from the fraud at VW should be forced to pay up. However, it is far easier to make such a demand than to implement it. Importantly, this point clearly demonstrates that the re-democratization of society is essential and that state policies of austerity and the promotion of low-wage sectors are undermining the socio-ecological transformation.