Opinion: Germany's treasured autobahn hits a bump in the road

The German autobahn -- literally "car runway" -- is among the longest and most dense road systems in the world.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently "Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin." The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Berlin (CNN)Horsepower-flush automobiles and the 7,200-mile highway system that accommodates them -- called the autobahn -- are part and parcel of national mythology in Germany.

Paul Hockenos
But driving on the autobahn, long stretches of which forswear any speed limit at all, can be a chilling experience for the timid.
    I'm not a slow driver -- and indeed am a native of the US, a country that too mythologizes the open road.
      But it's utterly disconcerting when, ticking along at a brisk 75 miles per hour, somebody blows by me on the left and then disappears over the horizon as if I were driving a lawnmower.
      For decades, German drivers (overwhelmingly male ones) have relished this ostensible perk of limitless speed, many in precision-engineered automobiles with such storied names as Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes Benz.
      Now, the climate crisis is prompting Germans to rethink their relationship with the autobahn, long feted as the crème de la crème of highway systems. (Adolf Hitler did not start the project, as often cited, but rather embellished it -- to propaganda-rich fanfare.)
        Germany's transportation sector's carbon emissions, say experts, are attributable overwhelmingly to cars and trucks -- and the higher the speed of a car, the greater the emissions.
        What's the purpose of four or five-lane thoroughfares in an epoch when new gas-and-diesel burners will, if the EU parliament has its way, be banned by 2035 anyway?
        Of course, Electric Vehicles (EVs) require good roads, too. But because their horsepower and top speeds are often lower, they require less superhighway -- and more charging stations on well-kept roads. An e-car's high speed, while impressive, still generally pales to the motorheads I see on the autobahn pushing 140 miles per hour.
        Also, with limited resources, the burning question in Germany at the moment is whether tens of billions of euros earmarked for new and broader autobahn wouldn't do more good building out cycling highways, like in the Netherlands, or an improved high-speed, densely networked rail service.
        Ultimately, the proclivities of the car zealots have no place in the 21st century when we're racing against the clock to decarbonize our economies.
        The European Union is toiling to sink emissions by at least 55% by 2030, while Germany wants to better that by another 10%. Moreover, we're locked in an energy showdown with Vladimir Putin's Russia.
        Yet the EU's transport emissions have shot up steadily for years, slowed only temporarily by the Covid-19 pandemic. In Germany, the trend is even worse: transportation's share of emissions in the national footprint rose almost by half between 1990 and 2022. While emissions in almost every other sector, including industry, have fallen.
        Germany has the most cars on the road of any EU country (almost 49 million). And while its EV sales are soaring, government dreams of having 15 million registered battery-installed vehicles by 2030 are expected to fall far short.
        This is why the International Energy Agency, a global energy forum, urges Germany, as well as every other country with an automobile culture, to embark immediately on a sustainable transportation revolution. The