Environment Minister on EU Emissions Measure: 'They Shouldn't Act As if their Primary Concern Were Climate Protection'

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, 51, discusses plans by the Environment Committee in the European Parliament to tighten emissions standards on new cars, arguing that standards must be increased, but without jeopardizing the economic base.

Car manufacturing at Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany: "The issue now is to transform the industry as quickly as possible without jeopardizing the economic base."
AP

Car manufacturing at Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany: "The issue now is to transform the industry as quickly as possible without jeopardizing the economic base."

Last week the Environment Committee of the European Parliament agreed to support a sharp measure: Beginning in 2012, and not in 2015, as originally envisioned, average CO2 emissions from new cars will be capped at 120 grams per kilometer. The German automobile industry would be most affected by the measure. However, the plan must first be ratified by the European Parliament and the European Council, which consists of the heads of state and government of the European Union, before it can become law.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, are you fighting for this tougher regulation on the side of the Environment Committee?

Gabriel: No, not at all. The Committee's recommendation will only mean that the search for a compromise will take even longer. It will spark new arguments. And clarity for climate protection and the automobile industry won't come until later.

SPIEGEL: Why are you, as the environment minister, opposed to the early implementation of climate protection measures in the auto industry?

Gabriel: People are acting as if the world climate depended on whether the legislation is fully enacted three years earlier or later. I think this is totally absurd. The problem lies elsewhere. The Environment Committee had originally decided to send the following message: Make sure that you don't use the banner of climate protection to conduct a competitive race! But that's exactly what is happening now. Unlike its French and Italian competitors, the German auto industry, with its completely differently line of models, can hardly reach the set goal by 2012.

SPIEGEL: Are you more concerned about the auto industry than the climate?

Gabriel: No, I am concerned about one thing: We cannot and must not play off climate protection and the economy against one another. Germany is taking on 75 percent of Europe's CO2 reduction. This country can only do so if it is successful economically. To that end, you also need the support of the skilled workers in the German automobile industry. If they are under the impression that they're the ones footing the bill, you will not see such policies supported by a majority in Germany.

SPIEGEL: Why should autoworkers be footing the bill?

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "It was not the German, but the European auto industry that failed to live up to its commitment."
REUTERS

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "It was not the German, but the European auto industry that failed to live up to its commitment."

Gabriel: Fuel-efficient technologies can be effectively introduced in new vehicle models. But if we have to modify the current models to achieve an effect more quickly, it will cost a lot of money. Customers will not be willing to pay that much more for their cars. This could force companies to cut costs for wages and salaries and possibly eliminate jobs. That's why we and (the) IG Metall (trade union) have agreed to a proposal that Guido Sacconi, the reporter for the Environment Committee in the European Parliament, also supports: The gradual introduction of the new limits by 2015.

SPIEGEL: Did the French and others thwart this in Brussels to give their auto industry a head start?

Gabriel: Naturally, the Germans are concerned about the German, the Italians about the Italian and the French about the French auto industry. That is perfectly okay and understandable. But then they shouldn't act as if their primary concern were climate protection.

SPIEGEL: You are arguing like an economics minister, not an environment minister.

Gabriel: I understand that many people are saying: Dear Mr. Environment Minister, you ought to be pleased about anything that elevates the environmental requirements. It's a nice thought. But the reality is that we also have to make sure that the country's economic performance is not impaired. We are increasing the budget appropriation for environmental protection from €4 billion ($5.8 billion) in 2004 to €5.5 billion ($8 billion) next year. We can only do this if we have a competitive industry. If an environment minister does not support this, he will pursue very short-term policies that end up being problematic, because the money we need for environmental protection will no longer be earned.

SPIEGEL: But by championing the German auto industry, you are also fighting for a sector that has not abided by its own commitment to promote fuel efficiency.

Gabriel: It was not the German, but the European auto industry that failed to live up to its commitment. It was also the French and Italian manufacturers. Of course, the industry was far too late in addressing the issue. But what good does dwelling on it do today? The issue now is to transform the industry as quickly as possible without jeopardizing the economic base.

SPIEGEL: How will the dispute continue?

Gabriel: I am convinced that there will not be a law that fulfills the expectations of the Environment Committee. If everyone makes an effort, we will get a decision in the European Parliament. If not, there will be more debates among the Parliament, Council and Commission. Then we will start all over again.

Interview conducted by Dietmar Hawranek and Christian Schwägerl.

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