By Holger Hansen
BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government presented a plan on Tuesday to cut pollution from diesel vehicles by offering owners trade-in incentives and hardware upgrades, prompting swift objections from both the car industry and environmental groups.
After marathon talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of her coalition partners announced in the early hours of Tuesday they had agreed on a way to cut pollution in the worst-affected German cities while avoiding unpopular driving bans.
Owners of millions of older diesel vehicles in Germany's 14 most polluted cities should be able to choose between trade-in incentives and hardware fixes for their vehicles.
Carmakers, however, did not commit to covering the cost of retrofits, as the hardware fixes are known, which could run into billions of euros. They said instead the focus should be on encouraging car owners to trade in their older diesel models for cleaner vehicles - which would bring a boost in sales, albeit at discounted prices.
The government cannot force the carmakers to pay for hardware upgrades, but shares an interest with the industry in preventing further driving bans for polluting cars, which have already been imposed in Hamburg and planned for Frankfurt.
On the other side of the argument, green groups argued that the government should have been tougher on the industry, three years after the "dieselgate" scandal broke out at Volkswagen.
Environmental groups have been heartened by a court ruling in February that allowed cities to ban older diesel cars.
"Driving bans will not be avoided with this double failure to come up with a solution," said Juergen Resch, managing director of environmental group DUH, noting upcoming rulings in a number of major cities.
Ministers were keen to trumpet a deal that they said would mean a big investment by carmakers in getting drivers into cleaner cars.
"We are talking about a significant billion (euro) contribution that German carmakers will bring for these models," Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said.
German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said that the car industry should take the chance of avoiding driving bans.
"My impression is that the car industry has a big interest in restoring the image of diesel," she said.
Carmakers have said they expect only a small proportion of owners of the affected vehicles to opt for a retrofit rather than a trade-in, and raised practical objections over the plan.
Volkswagen said whether retrofits were possible would depend on suppliers developing systems that were good enough, and it did not commit to covering the cost of hardware upgrades.
Costs for the industry could be as high as 12.5 billion euros, estimated Stefan Bratzel, director of Germany's Center of Automotive Management.
"If around 2.5 million vehicles take up retrofits or trade-in incentives with costs between 2,500 and 5,000 euros, the total cost would be between 6.3 and 12.5 billion euros," he said.
There are 3.1 million diesel cars running to the Euro 4 standard, and 5.7 million Euro 5 diesels, out of a total of 46.5 million cars on the roads in Germany, according to figures from the German KBA transport authority.
Environmental group Greenpeace accused the industry of exploiting the situation.
"The carmakers are trying to turn their cheating on emissions into a sales bonanza for new cars - a strategy that will continue to damage the climate and waste resources," it said.
Klaus Mueller, head of Germany's Consumer Protection Association told the Sueddeutsche newspaper that many customers would not be able to afford to change their cars even with the trade-in incentives.
"END OF ERA"
The proposals apply to diesel vehicles meeting the older Euro 4 and Euro 5 emissions standards. The current standard is Euro 6.
"We are obviously headed for the end of diesel," Renault Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told reporters at the Paris auto show where electric cars are in the spotlight.
"It’s the end of the game," he added.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt and Joe White in Paris; Writing by Michelle Martin and Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan/Keith Weir)