Frankfurt auto show makes sustainability promises amid protests

Bernhard Mattes, president of the VDA auto industry association in Germany has stated “we will make our contribution to climate protection and invest massively in sustainable individual mobility” in the weeks leading up to the International Motor Show in Frankfurt (IAA 2019). This year’s IAA has been the subject of numerous protests, even before its scheduled start date on 11 September. Protestors held a banner outside Mattes’ press conference on Monday with the words “cars have been overtaken”, in an attempt to draw attention to the environmental and social consequences of fossil fuel car manufacturing and driving. The protests have focused especially on luxury cars, many of which are set to be displayed at the IAA.

In late August, a group of masked protesters broke into a dealership in Kronberg and destroyed more than 40 luxury cars. Security footage shows the perpetrators smashing windows and hitting the bodies of the cars with metal objects, according to police. The damage is estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of euros. Shortly after the break-in, a letter was released on an internet portal from an anonymous source claiming responsibility for the protest, though the legitimacy of the letter is so far undetermined. The letter claimed that protest against the IAA was a motivating factor behind the break-in, and the authorial group aligned itself with the German activism group Sand im Getriebe (Sand in Gear), who have planned protests against the IAA. Sand in Gear has denied association with the perpetrators, claiming that “sabotage is not one of our forms of action”. The letter went on to condemn the manufacture and purchase of luxury cars and SUVs, citing the polluting emissions, and production processes that are outsourced to developing countries, where emissions and workplace safety standards are lower and resources like rare metals, rubber, cotton and leather are extracted in mines and farms using extremely low-wage and even slave labour. The group intends to join Sand in Gear in blocking access roads to the IAA venue on 14 and 15 September, and urges readers of the letter to join.

This year’s IAA has been scaled down. 2017’s venue had 200,000 square metres of show space, while this year’s venue has 168,000. The number of participating exhibitors has decreased as well, from 994 in 2017 to 800 this year. Automobile manufacturers like Fiat, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Chevrolet, Cadillac and Aston Martin will not be at the show, and only five exhibitions will feature new cars. Of these new cars, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz will be exhibiting their new electric vehicles. Mattes has claimed that this down-scale does not indicate decreasing interest or relevancy in the show, stating “We are experiencing a transformation from the world’s largest car showroom to the most relevant platform. A trend can be seen among all the major exhibitions: the relevant point is no longer the size of the area, but the extent of the media reach.” The exhibition has also decided to use more space this year for group discussions and forums about topics such as sustainability, inviting activists and consumers to participate in interactive debates.

Despite claims of sustainability focus and increased relevancy, the planned blocks to IAA access routes and entryways by Sand in Gear and other activism groups could significantly decrease IAA turnout. Sand in Gear has called the public to action in the style of civil disobedience seen in German nuclear and coal plants.

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