More than one raised their hands to their heads when it was learned earlier this year that a Czech millionaire, Radim Passer, had put his Bugatti Chiron at 417 kilometers per hour on the highway between Berlin and Hannover, in Germany. The man recorded himself and uploaded his feat to YouTube. The German Transport Minister criticized him in public and the Prosecutor’s Office announced that it was investigating him, but in the end there was no complaint. His race was completely legal because he ran at dawn through one of the sections of the famous autobahn (highways) where one can drive as fast as they want or can. Germany is one of the few countries, along with Haiti, Nepal and North Korea, without a general speed limit on motorways. A rarity that could have its days numbered.
The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has turned the so-called tempolimit (speed limit) in the latest German taboo. Since Vladimir Putin’s troops crossed the Ukrainian border, Berlin has reversed its foreign, defense and energy policies. From categorically refusing to send weapons to regions in conflict, turning against allies like the United States, it went on to supply tanks to kyiv. If it previously condemned coal as the most polluting energy source, the Russian gas shutdown has forced it to restart closed plants and expand mines to produce electricity. Even nuclear power, a thorny issue on which virtually no one believed there was going back, is experiencing a resurgence, with the useful life of the last three plants being extended.
At the altar of what has defined Germany in recent decades, practically only the speed limit remains, which, although it has been the subject of bitter controversy for years, has remained untouchable until today. The war in Ukraine has returned it to the center of public debate because it would contribute to energy saving and Russia’s energy independence. Ecologists defend that it is urgent to put it into operation. Germany is not meeting its environmental commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, recalls Juliane Dickel, head of energy and nuclear policy at the Bund organization. “A speed limit would help save money quickly and easily,” she says.
Within the government coalition, a tripartite made up of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, the tempolimit it has turned out to be trickier than budgets. Already in the negotiations to form a government, a year ago, the Greens fought, without success, to include it in the coalition agreement. But neither then nor now, with a war in eastern Europe causing an unprecedented energy crisis, the liberals of the FDP are willing to put a stop to what is often interpreted in Germany as the ultimate expression of individual freedom.
Germany is, after all, a country where the car has an enormous weight, real and figurative. The automobile industry, the largest economic sector, contributes 7% of GDP and employs almost one million people. It is the cradle of the most prestigious brands —Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche—, which boast of the power and speed of their new models. For many Germans, the car is one of their most prized possessions, although this is changing in the younger generations. With public railways becoming less and less reliable, the car is still for many a guarantee of punctuality and independence.
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The discussion of tempolimit it is little less than a matter of culture war, points out Giulio Mattioli, a researcher specializing in transport at the University of Dortmund, who compares it, saving the distance, with the arms debate in the United States. “It’s a hugely controversial issue that is passionately defended by a very vocal minority,” he explains. If we go to the polls, it turns out that the majority of Germans are in favor of a speed limit on highways of 130 kilometers per hour, recalls the expert. This was stated by 57% of the citizens who were asked by the survey company Forsa last May, when the debate on the price of gasoline and the fear of the consequences of cutting off Russian gas were in full swing. By party, Social Democrat, Green and Christian Democrat voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the cap. Not so the far-right of the AfD and the liberals of the FDP.
The debate is once again fully topical because the liberal leader, Christian Lindner, Finance Minister of the Government led by Olaf Scholz, launched an ordeal at the Greens in the podcast political state of the nation. He proposed to rethink his refusal to tempolimit if the ecologists were willing to leave the nuclear power plants running beyond next April, which is the last date agreed, with many difficulties, between the three partners. The proposal has been understood more as Lindner’s bluff than a real offer, because the Greens, who have already given up more than imaginable, would never agree to buy the new nuclear fuel rods the plants need to keep running from april.
In Germany there is no speed limit on about 70% of motorways. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA, for its German acronym) has calculated that setting the limit at 100 kilometers per hour would save 2.1 billion liters of gasoline and diesel each year, or 3.8% of fuel consumption in the transport sector. In terms of Germany’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, energy expert Claudia Kemfert, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), has estimated that the tempolimit it would reduce Russian oil imports by 5-7%.
More safety and less pollution
The agency recently updated its calculations of the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. A general limit of 120 kilometers per hour would reduce emissions by two million tons of CO₂ equivalent per year. Even setting it at 130 kilometers per hour would have a positive saving effect, with 1.5 million fewer tons emitted into the atmosphere. The tempolimit “It would be a feasible, profitable and effective contribution to reduce transport emissions in the short term,” says a UBA report. “Traffic safety would also increase and noise and polluting emissions would be reduced,” he adds.
With the Social Democrats also in favor of the speed limit, the only stumbling block are the Liberals, who precisely stayed with the Ministry of Transport in the distribution of portfolios a year ago. Without them there would be no majority. According to some experts, such as the constitutionalist Joachim Wieland, an old law from 1974, promulgated shortly after the oil crisis, would allow a temporary speed limit to be imposed. The Energy Security Law authorizes the Ministry of Economy and Climate, in the hands of the greens, to decree the measure for a determined time. I would have to justify it very well, yes. The supply should be in jeopardy or outright interrupted, and it is not clear that this is the case. But most importantly: such a decision would open such a rift between the government partners that it would be difficult for the Greens to risk taking it.
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