Climate change concerns sour Germany's love for cars

Survey: 48% list climate change as No. 1 concern

By Atika Shubert and Nadine Schmidt, CNN
Adam Berry/Getty Images

Activists participate in a climate change demonstration on Jannowitzbrücke bridge on April 15, 2019, in Berlin, Germany.

(CNN) - In car-loving Germany, climate change has become a leading -- but divisive -- issue for voters going into European elections.

A new Deutschland Trend poll by national broadcaster ARD, shows that 48% of respondents listed climate change as their biggest concern.

On one side are younger, urban voters, demanding immediate steps to become a carbon-neutral country. On the other, are an older, rural generation who grew prosperous under Germany's coal-powered, automobile-driven economy.

"Young people are much more involved with digitalization now," explains Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg-Essen.

"They are almost more happy to get the latest iPhone as a present than a car."

Germany has already committed to reducing carbon emissions next year by 40% from 1990 levels, 55% by 2030 and up to 95% in 2050. It's not clear though if the country can hit those targets.

Energy production is by far the leading cause of emissions, and Germany has promised to phase out coal-energy plants and replace them with renewables by 2038. But transportation is the next leading cause of emissions, and getting Germans to give up their cars goes right to the heart of the country's political and cultural debate.

Home to Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler-Benz

It's no wonder that cars have a special place in Germany.

Home to Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler-Benz, the country produced 5.5 million passenger cars in 2017, according to the country's Trade and Investment Agency.

The automobile industry employs more than 820,000 people and generates about 20% of Germany's industrial output. The autobahn -- a no-limits highway paradise for speed-loving drivers --- criss-crosses the country.

But the automobile industry has been hard hit, in part by swelling climate activism as well as the fallout from "Dieselgate," the 2015 emissions scandal that revealed Volkswagen, as well as others, had colluded to cheat diesel pollution regulations.

Plummeting car sales were blamed for the country's shrinking GDP last year, nearly tipping the country into recession.

"Large segments of the population have now realized that climate change is the biggest threat. As the world steers towards reducing emissions, the carmakers have had to change their former models. And they all have moved away from old lines," said auto analyst Duddenhofer.

"Both VW and Mercedes as well as BMW and even the supplier have said they want to become climate neutral. We have no other option but to become purely electric."

In its Climate Action Plan 2050 unveiled earlier this year, the government promised to reduce transport emissions by 2030 by as much as 95 million tons. But the plan did not set a deadline for German cars to be emission free and evaded responsibility for stricter emission limits for new cars by stating it would be set at a European -- and not a national level.

But for climate activists that is simply too little too late.

In an April debate with Economy Minister Peter Altmeier, Luisa Neubauer, 23-year-old leading the Fridays For Future school strikes snapped: "We see that our future is far lower on your priority list than is that of Volkswagen!"

Few parties have been able to capitalize on that discontent like the Greens. Once a fringe, far-left party, according to ARD the Greens are now polling at roughly 20%, neck-and-neck with its biggest rival on the left -- the once formidable Social Democrats, and far outpacing the far right, Alternative for Germany (AfD).

"People have realized that the idea of climate change -- a climate crisis -- is real," says Oliver Krischner, a leading member of the Greens party.

"I think that pays off for us now. Even when we were unpopular and we did not make the headlines, we clearly gave priority to climate change. And voters see when one is genuine and serious talking about such a big public issue."

Climate activists Greta Thunberg mocked

While the public seems to support more action on climate change, recent polls show Germans are divided on what steps to take.

A poll taken earlier this month by national broadcaster ARD showed that 81% of respondents demanded immediate action to reduce emissions but less than 34% supported political proposals, like a carbon tax.

And not everyone in Germany is convinced that climate change is a problem.

Germany's far-right populist party AfD has campaigned for the EU elections by saying it wants to be the party that "saves diesel," not the climate.

Some AfD members have mocked Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, as "Saint Greta" leading a quixotic rabble of teenage protesters.

But for all their taunts, the AFD could be reacting to recent poll numbers from the weekly Deutschland Trendpoll by the ARD that show unusually heightened interest in the EU elections this year, with 63% of respondents said they were "very interested."

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