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German carmakers survive first round of climate lawsuits

FILE PHOTO: A Volkswagen logo is pictured in a production line at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg

By Victoria Waldersee

BERLIN (Reuters) -German carmakers made it unscathed through a series of lawsuits led by environmental groups demanding they restrict their carbon emissions, with the final ruling issued on Friday - but the battle is not over, with all plaintiffs pledging to appeal.

The heads of Greenpeace Germany and environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, climate activist Clara Mayer, and farmer Ulf Allhoff-Cramer targeted three carmakers with lawsuits in 2022.

The filings, against Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, represented the first time citizens in Germany sued companies for exacerbating climate change.

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"We knew this was new legal territory in Germany, and that it would be a long journey," Martin Kaiser, head of Greenpeace Germany, said. "But social dialogue on this has come a long way... a global topic like climate change must be regulated."

The lawsuits demanded that automakers end production of fossil fuel-emitting cars by 2030, and ensure the carbon dioxide emitted by their cars and factories before then does exceed a carbon budget calculated by the NGOs.

In what plaintiffs hoped would set a legal precedent to take action against other firms, they argued that the carmakers' carbon footprint was infringing on their rights to live a life free of greenhouse gases, enshrined in a ruling by Germany's federal court in May 2021.

Farmer Alhoff-Cramer also argued Volkswagen's emissions were damaging his livelihood.

In a series of hearings, judges ruled that the link between the infringement of citizens' rights and the carmakers' actions were not clear enough, though some added this could change in future, giving hope to the plaintiffs who all plan to appeal.

In Allhoff-Cramer's case, the judge deemed the changes in climate which have occurred so far the "new normal", and said it was not clear how much worse the damage to his land would get in a world warmed beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Carmakers welcomed the rulings, laying out their electrification targets and arguing that such matters should be decided via political debate, not lawsuits.

Still, lawyers contacted by Reuters said carmakers can expect to face tougher battles in court as the public becomes more anxious about climate change, with companies increasingly held accountable for the impact of their entire supply chain.

"The problem is, society is changing," a senior lawyer, who declined to be named, said. "There'll be more and more Greta Thunberg-types on the jury in future."

(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee and Jan Schwartz; Editing by Miranda Murray, Friederike Heine and Jan Harvey)