Would a congestion charge save Berlin?

The capital was the first German state to declare a climate emergency last year. Now the city’s environmental boss has a plan to tackle the crisis.

There used to be a wall there. 
There used to be a wall there. Imago images

Berlin-In December 2019, Berlin became the first of Germany’s 16 states to declare a climate emergency. Eight months later, the Berlin government wants to consolidate this symbolic act with gradual but decisive measures discussed Tuesday. 

They include compulsory solar panels for both public and private new builds, a ban on vehicles with fossil-fuel engines in the city centre, and an emission-free fleet of ministerial cars. And perhaps even a toll of up to €8 a day for motorists.

Environment minister Regine Günther (Greens) prepared a new package of climate legislation and has already secured approval from other administrative departments. Berlin politicians are expected to pass the measures Tuesday even though several details and start dates for the measures are not yet known.

Günther's most ambitious plan and a major point of contention for Berlin's SPD-Linke-Green coalition, is the introduction of a zero emissions zone. Privately owned cars with petrol and diesel engines would be prohibited from driving within the new green zone.

Vehicles used by the police, fire brigade and other emergency services would be excluded from the rule if they can’t be adapted in time. The plan sees the city centre transformed into a zero emissions zone as quickly as possible.

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Günther had previously wanted the zone within the S-Bahn ring to be demarcated as such a zone by 2030 and the whole city by 2035. Her SPD colleagues in particular oppose that timetable and no new date has yet been confirmed. Conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as for buses and trains, would improve drastically within the zone.

The Berlin government has launched a study to assess various possible improvements to local public transport. Public transport is currently financed through fares and the state's budget.

Now, as a possible third plinth to hold up the network, a “city toll” for cars is in under consideration – anyone driving into the city centre would have to pay a charge. The toll has long been discussed, with talk of between €5 and €8 per vehicle.

It's got a ring to it: the S-Bahn ring could become a new border marking the start of a central zero emissions zone.
It's got a ring to it: the S-Bahn ring could become a new border marking the start of a central zero emissions zone.

A "solidarity ticket", or "citizen’s ticket" (Bürger-Ticket) is another potential option. Every Berlin resident would have to buy an annual ticket from BVG – the state public transport authority – to finance Berlin’s buses and trains, even if they don’t use public transport.

Measures requiring only certain groups to pay for public transport are also up for discussion – for example, a tourist ticket as proposed by the Greens. Every tourist required to pay hotel tax would also be obligated to buy a day ticket – regardless of whether or not they plan to take public transport.

The idea’s critics call it a "forced ticket."

Free city centre parking will also be abolished. Currently just 40 per cent of streets within the S-Bahn ring are equipped with parking ticket machines – that should increase to 75 per cent by the end of 2021. This huge expansion is particularly ambitious since the final goal is 100 per cent by the end of 2023.

Different areas are to be priced differently, with tariffs ranging between €2 and €4 per hour. Residents can apply for special residential tickets, which currently cost €10.20 a year. Even that price would increase massively under Günther's plan. The current maximum permitted by federal law is €20 per month, or €240 per year.

By 2030, the entire city fleet of official vehicles would be swapped for emission-free equivalents. According to Günther’s plan, from 2023 only emission-free vehicles should be purchased. By the end of the Berlin government’s current term next year, all ministerial cars are to be exchanged for environmentally friendly equivalents.

Solar panels would also become compulsory on the rooves of new private builds and both new and existing publicly owned buildings from this autumn. Berlin would be the second state behind Hamburg to introduce the measure.

What surface area private landlords would have to cover, or the exact conditions they would have to meet, have not yet been set and would be determined by the city's economy department.

Berlin’s government also wants the Bundesrat (the second chamber of Germany's parliament) to accelerate a nationwide ban on oil heating set for 2026, which it also says is full of loopholes. The city is keen to get its own plan moving before the Bundesrat can put nationwide measures in place. The move could become a test for whether Berlin can continue to go its own way on environmental policy – national law takes precedent over that of each state.

The mammoth task of completing Germany's energy revolution will need more laws behind it, and a vote for the plan would be far from the final piece of the puzzle. The Berlin Senat’s own law on energy transition, signed into effect in 2016, will have to be changed profoundly, and a new law on solar energy will also be needed.