Germany, one of Europe’s greenest countries, is struggling to keep emissions low. And although the Western European country is known for its alternative approaches to sustainable transport, Germany, also known as Europe’s ‘car nation,’ is looking to make public transportation free across five of its most polluted cities to avoid paying hefty fines for not meeting the European Union’s air quality targets.

The proposition to make public transport free as a response to stagnant emission levels was made in a letter written by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, and chancellery office chief Peter Altmaier to the European Environment Commissioner. Karmenu Vella, in Brussels.

The letter, which was seen by AFP, details that the proposal will be tested “by end of year at the latest” across five different German cities, including the former German capital Bonn. Joining Bonn is a number of German cities, including Herrenberg – just south of Stuttgart – which is among the country’s most polluted cities.

Alongside providing free public transport, the letter sent to the European Commissioner detailed a number of other measures, such as further restrictions on emissions released by buses and taxis, the creation of low-emission zones, and encouraging car-share schemes. In addition to Germany, eight other EU member states including France, Spain, and Italy failed to abide by the January 30th deadline that the European Union had set for its member states to meet limits on nitrogen oxide (NOxs) and fine particles.

German air quality

The European Commission’s standards for air quality across the European Union. (CC: European Commission)

Even prior to the EU’s pressure to adjust German air quality to its standards, the country has struggled to keep pollution levels low. In light of Volkswagen’s emissions scandal of 2015 in which the car tycoon purposely programmed its vehicles to cheat emission tests, the German government has actively tried to make the reduction in pollution levels one of its main priorities. To make matters worse, the Commission reports that some 400,000 Europeans die prematurely due to air pollution, costing the international union €20bn euros ($24.7bn) on healthcare.

Chief of the Association of German Cities, Helmut Dedy, noted in response to the German call for free public transport that the Association expects a clear statement about how free public transportation will be financed by the federal government. And while the government is bending over backwards trying to meet pollution standards set by the European Union, many are calling for car manufacturers to work harder to reverse damage that they have contributed to.

Investigation into the Volkswagen scandal showed that with the over 11 million vehicles that the car tycoon programmed to cheat emission tests, the vehicles yielded an amount of NOxs equivalent to all of the UK’s NOx emissions combined. Mayor of the German City of Bonn, Ashok Sridharan, doubts the ability of automobile manufacturers to help reverse the damage done to German air quality. He says to the German press agency DPA, “I don’t know any manufacturer who would be able to deliver the number of electric buses we would need.”

Making public transportation free is not a novel solution to improving air quality. Earlier this year, Seoul announced that its residents would be allowed to ride public transport for free for two days; this was in addition to a number of other measures taken by the city when pollution levels exceeded the recommended threshold. Other cities, like Dunkirk in France, announced plans to provide free public transport for citizens to improve air quality as well as to provide a measure of socio-economic equity.

Late last year, many residents of New Delhi fled the city indefinitely after the air quality reached toxicity levels that prompted the government to strongly urge residents to not even leave their homes out of fear of the spread of illnesses, or even worse, death.