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Germanwatch calls for urgent climate action

Irene QuaileFebruary 23, 2016

Following the COP21 Paris accord, climate change is now firmly placed on the political agenda. But it's only just the beginning says Germanwatch policy chief Christoph Bals.

Famine aid in Ethiopia
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Ayene

DW: Since Germanwatch was set up in 1991, how have you seen this issue change over time?

Christoph Bals: When we started, climate change was discussed but only in scientific circles, so we needed to get it on the political agenda. Now, we really have to implement it, we are in a totally different phase.

At the end of 2015 there was much celebration for the Paris climate agreement. Do you think it was a milestone?

I think it was definitely a milestone. It was the first global agreement with commitments from all nations in the world, and it was even more ambitious than expected. But we also must see the very important but limited role of such a climate agreement. You can bring the ball to the penalty box, but the scorers have to come from government, from investment, from civil society - that's our task now.

Christoph Bals NGO Germanwatch
Bals says fossil fuels must be phased out fast.Image: DW/M.Müller

So how are we doing, and where do we have to go in 2016?

In the last two to three years we have seen lots of positive developments at the international level. In 2014 we had the first year without a global economic crisis, where we didn't have an increase of global emissions. And we have seen a fantastic development of renewable energies in the world. Now the question is: Can Paris use these global developments to create a real turning point so that we have a peak of emissions before 2020, and not only have a quick development of renewable energy, but also a quick phasing out of fossil fuels at the same time? We know that many rich people and companies in the world will lose a lot if this emerges. So there will be a very tough fight in the next couple of years about whether we move forward or not.

If we look at it in real terms, at the moment we are very far away from being anywhere near the two degree target, let alone the 1.5 agreed in Paris?

Definitely, we still burn a lot of fossil fuels. But today we invest much less in fossil fuels than we did five years ago and 70 percent of the investments in the field of electricity in the last four years went into renewable energies on a global scale - and that is brand new. We really see positive developments in the real world, not only on paper. But this is not yet enough. In each of our countries we have to move to the next phase. For Germany this means phasing out lignite by 2035, and the rest of our coal even earlier. If not, then the implementation of Paris will not be successful in Germany.

Frankreich Cop21 Klimagipfel in Paris - Protest
Image: Reuters/Greenpeace

Germany, by comparison with many other countries, is a sort of model in the transition to renewables. What about the other players - the USA, China, India?

Regarding renewable energies, Germany is a model and watched all over the world. But if you look to lignite, that is the energy with the highest emissions per kilowatt hour, Germany is the biggest burner in the world, bigger than China. So there are two faces of Germany. But of course our energy transformation has played a international big role. The costs of renewable energies are now competitive in most parts of the world, and this could only happen through the demand for renewable energies in Germany and mass production in China. Now others have to move forward and many are doing that. But there are gaps in capacity, technology, finance and risk-taking. We need transformational partnerships between key players to fill those gaps.

In the meantime, a lot of countries, especially developing countries, are already seeing major climate impacts. Where are we on the way to tackling that?

As part of the Paris agreement, we have seen a solidarity package: New money was put into the adaptation fund of the Kyoto Protocol, and the Green Climate Fund was established - which will probably be the biggest international structure to organize financing for adaptation. Industrialized countries promised to mobilize $100 billion per year (by 2020) towards assisting developing countries with climate mitigation and adaptation. And there's a very interesting Climate Risk Insurance initiative from the G7 to assist 400 million people from the poorest and most vulnerable countries. All this is underway, but it won't be enough.

Can political solutions be achieved in the framework of the UN climate talks, or do other forums have to play a bigger role?

The UN talks can only play a very limited if important role. Without them, it would be much more difficult for others to play their role. Now we have to move towards a situation where individual governments, groups like the G20, investors, civil society all have to play their role. We will see in five years from now whether we get this additional momentum from Paris on those different levels. Climate policy usually moves forward in waves, but I hope we now reach so much momentum that it's self-organizing, and the dynamics create new dynamics.

I think the refugee crisis at the moment has the risk people forget about climate change for a moment, and think we have more important things to do. On other hand, it''s a very important reminder to say people will get into much more trouble some decades from now if we don't move forward aggressively on climate protection and resilience measures, and support those countries already at risk of collapse, where climate change is also part of the problem. We really have to become active now if we want to live in a world tomorrow which has less and not more problems than today.

Christoph Bals is Policy Director at Germanwatch, a NGO dealing with environment and development issues.The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile at Fast Forward, a conference organized by Germanwatch on implementing the international climate and sustainable development agenda, and marking the 25th birthday of the organisation.