Daimler faces off with green groups at heated forum

Andrew Blackman
Bloomberg News

Daimler AG’s head of sales, facing off with environmentalists at a heated meeting in Berlin, said the company is investing billions of euros to transform its product range to reach emissions targets.

“We are very serious about this,” Britta Seeger said during a recent discussion forum with members of three groups that have promised to bring the upcoming Frankfurt car show to a standstill. “We are part of the solution for the future.”

Seeger made her comments in response to an environmental activist from the Campact group, Luise Neumann-Cosel, who said the large number of “big, dirty cars” on the roads will have “catastrophic” consequences. “You have your hands on the wheel and your foot on the pedal. We need new policies and new measures.”

In a possible lead-in of what’s to come during the biannual Frankfurt show, the exchanges between Seeger, BMW AG’s labor head Manfred Schoch, German auto lobby VDA President Bernhard Mattes and three green group representatives grew unusually hostile. The event attracted an audience of about 200, as well as about a dozen protesters outside.

Carmakers have come under intense scrutiny over pollution levels particularly in urban areas since Volkswagen AG’s cheating on diesel emissions, revealed in 2015.

Manufacturers like Daimler and BMW have stayed on the defensive since, grudgingly giving in to initiatives improving emissions performance. The transport sector is responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions in Europe, according to a report by the European Federation for Transport and Environment, a green interest group.

“I’m absolutely convinced that carmakers will adapt to the situation,” said Schoch, BMW AG’s top labor representative. “Those that don’t will go out of business.”

Traditional carmakers will be showing off electric models like VW’s ID.3 and Porsche’s Taycan in Frankfurt alongside profit mainstays of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

Still, they remain at the start of their battery car rollouts, even as much tougher CO2 regulatory hurdles loom in China and Europe. Consumers for their part have been slow to take to the vehicles, unless offered generous subsidies.

Climate change awareness movements like Fridays for Future, where thousands of high school students stage weekly demonstrations, point to a generation of future consumers more likely to protest the car’s role in global warming than to shop for a new VW, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

The Frankfurt show opens its doors to the public on Sept. 12, and protesters including Greenpeace and Germany’s BUND have called for a march on the exhibition ground, joining groups of cyclists setting off from around Frankfurt. Activists are also likely to stage a protest at Tuesday’s first official press day.