Horsepower-flush automobiles and the 7,200-mile highway system that accommodates those vehicles, called the autobahn, belong to Germany’s national mythology. For decades, German drivers have relished the ostensible perk of its long stretches of asphalt without a speed limit. But the climate crisis has called this cherished tradition into question, prompting Germans to rethink their relationship to internal combustion engines – and to the autobahn itself, writes Paul Hockenos.
What’s the purpose of four- or five-lane thoroughfares in an epoch when gas-and-diesel burners will, if the EU parliament has its way, be banned by 2035 anyway? Moreover, switching from road to rail, a cornerstone of sustainable mobility, will eventually reduce the number of automobiles of all kinds on the road: in other words, we want fewer cars of any sort using the autobahn, be they EVs, gasoline-burners, or vehicles run on e-fuels. There’s a broad consensus in Germany that the more people travelling with public transportation and bicycles, the better.
Also, with limited resources, the burning question in Germany at the moment is whether those funds earmarked for new and broader autobahn wouldn’t do more good building out cycling highways, like in the Netherlands, or a high-speed, densely networked rail service – and subsidizing commuters’ use of them?
Ultimately, the proclivities of the car nuts has no place in the 21st century when we’re racing against the clock to decarbonize our economies. Europe is toiling to sink emissions by 55 percent by 2030, while Germany wants to do better by ten percent. Moreover, we’re locked in an energy showdown with Vladmir Putin’s Russia. Yet the traditional transportation branches – notorious energy quaffs and prodigious emitters of greenhouse gases – are woefully slow to get with the program.
The EU’s transport emissions have shot up steadily for years, slowed only temporarily by the Covid pandemic. In Germany, the trend is even worse: transportation’s share of emissions in the national footprint rose roughly by one-third between 1990 and 2016, while emissions in every other sector, including industry, they have fallen. The number of cars on the road continues to rise: 48.5 million and climbing. The atrocious emissions results, say experts, are attributable largely to cars and trucks – and the higher the speed limit, the greater the emissions.
The EU’s Green Deal foresees Europe as the first carbon neutral continent in the world by 2050. Earlier this year, the Commission proposed a zero-emissions target for new city buses by 2030 and 90 percent emissions reductions for new trucks by 2040.
But Germany is bucking it, with the automobile manufacturers and their powerful lobby staunchly behind the unreconstructed car lovers. The automobile-friendly corner fights tooth and nail against reducing subsidies for long-distance automobile commuters and the prioritizing of low-carbon investments over more, wider, faster autobahn. In six locations in Germany – including in Berlin practically straight through my family’s backyard – new autobahn lengths are being planned or built, the beneficiaries of €54 billion of federal funds.
The pro-car faction makes the audacious argument that more autobahn would relieve traffic jams, which provoke ire and cast large emission footprints. Mobility expert Urs Maier of the Berlin think tank Agora Verkehrswende disagrees, telling CNN Opinion: “Studies and experience show definitively that the more street you pave, the more traffic you’ll get. At first, it makes driving easier and more attractive, but after short time you’ll have the same traffic jams as before but only on more lanes.”
Environmentalists, on the other hand, insist that the key to bringing mobility emissions under control is moving private and commercial traffic to rail services. Worldwide, road travel accounts for three-quarters of transport emissions, while trains tally just 1 percent of it.
Germany’s rail network has suffered greatly from years of neglect under the various conservative-led governments between 2005 and 2021. Underinvestment has caused the number of delayed and scratched trains to soar.
Climate scientists preach the virtues of sustainable mobility and insist that investment in an effective and tightly networked train system is the answer – as well as affordable fares. During the pandemic summer of 2022, the federal government decreed the issue of €9-a-month all-Germany ticket valid for all buses, metros, and regional trains from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. The ticket was a smashing success, at least in terms of sales: 52 million in total.
Yet, even though many more people were travelling in (jam-packed) trains, the offer didn’t shift droves of car travelers from the streets to the rails. The folks who adore their cars and the autobahn remained loyal to their objects of affection.
In contrast to the hysteric claims of car drivers and German nationalists, a wide-ranging shift away from internal combustion engines isn’t going to doom either road travel or the autobahn. But considering that mobility will look different, so must the autobahn adapt to it. Investment in better autobahn – like the repair of old asphalt and bridges – makes more sense than spending on more autobahn.
And those vehicles using it should travel more slowly, ideally under 120 kilometers per hour. A speed limit on the autobahn is a no-brainer, according to just about every expert in the field.
Experts at Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency (UBA) calculate that a general speed limit on German federal motorways would sink greenhouse gas emissions between 1.9 and 5.4 million tonnes a year, depending on the maximum speed. According to UBA president Dirk Messner: “A speed limit on motorways would help to cut road traffic greenhouse gas emissions in Germany. A 120km/h speed limit would result in reductions of 2.6 million tonnes per year. A speed limit of even 130 km/h already decreases emissions by 1.9 million tonnes – instantly and at no significant additional cost.”
Moreover, a limit of 100 km/h could even reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions worth 5.4 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the UBA.