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West German Cabinet pulls ahead of rest of Europe in car-emission controls

After months of squabbling the Bonn government has decided to apply strict American and Japanese-style car exhaust standards to West Germany beginning in 1989.

As proposed by the Cabinet Sept. 19, all new automobiles engines that are larger than two liters would have to have catalytic converters and take nonleaded gas by Jan. 1, 1988. All new cars of whatever size would have to be so outfitted by Jan. 1, 1989.

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In the interim there would be tax breaks for drivers who shifted voluntarily to low-emission vehicles. These benefits could amount to as much 3,000 marks ($1 ,000) and would be stretched over from four to 10 years.

A further financial benefit would come in the lowering of the tax on lead-free gas by 2 pfennigs to 40 pfennigs per liter and the raising of the tax on leaded gas by 2 pfennigs to 53 per liter. The tax accounts for about 40 percent of the pump price.

With this move West Germany would expect the European Community to advance its own exhaust controls from the present target date of 1995 to 1989. If the EC fails to do this, Bonn would still go it alone, invoking the article in the Treaty of Rome that allows for individual regulations in case of danger to health or environment.

West Germany is promoting the earlier controls largely to try to halt the advance of ''dying forests.'' Air pollution, particularly vehicle emissions and sulfurous industrial wastes, is blamed for damage that is occurring in trees in up to half of West Germany's woods.

The opposition Social Democrats and Greens call the government decision too little, too late. They want to hold to the unanimous Bundestag resolution of last February calling for compulsory catalyzers in all new cars by Jan. 1, 1986. They also expect to introduce legislation that would impose a speed limit on autobahns in an effort to cut car pollution.

Automobile manufacturers are pleased with the postponement of mandated exhaust controls in new cars for a few years. Daimler-Benz and others already produce catalyzer cars for export to the US and Japan, especially in the upper price ranges. The firms have wanted more time to regear their assembly lines, however, and shift to production of the smaller cars that face such keen competition from Japanese carmakers.

The states, which levy the auto registration taxes, must still approve the Cabinet package. The Cabinet proposal corresponds generally to the Bundesrat (upper house) recommendation worked out by the states last week, however, so no problems are expected.

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Current plans call for the tax relief for drivers with less polluting cars to be offset by raising the taxes of those with more polluting cars. It is expected that the rate will go up from the present 14.40 ($4.80) deutsche marks per hundred cubic centimeters to 16 marks ($5.33).

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