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Berlin votes on climate neutrality by 2030

Helen Whittle
March 25, 2023

Berliners will go to the polls yet again on Sunday to vote in a referendum to make the German capital climate neutral 15 years earlier than planned. Critics deride the proposal as too costly and completely unrealistic.

young demonstrators with banner reading "Yes to the referendum Berlin 2030 Climate neutral" marching in Berlin on March 26th at the Fridays For Future movement rally
Fridays for Future and other groups have been supporting the referendumImage: IPON/IMAGO

This Sunday, Berliners will vote in a referendum on whether to make the capital climate-neutral by 2030, bringing the current official target of 2045 forward by 15 years. About 2.4 million Berliners aged 18 or over will be eligible to vote. For the amendment to pass, at least 25% (roughly 613,000 eligible voters) will need to vote in favor.

Berlin, like Germany as a whole, currently aims for a 95% reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions by 2045, compared with 1990 levels. But climate scientists and activists say this does not go far enough, not least because Germany will have already exceeded its carbon budget for a pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2031.

According to the initiator of the referendum, a group called Klimaneustart Berlin (Climate Reset Berlin), the target, which was introduced in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, needs to be brought forward. With the referendum, Klimaneustart is seeking to make that legally binding for Berlin's government. 

Klimaneustart is asking voters to approve a pre-drafted amendment to the existing energy transition law. If passed, it would take immediate effect and require action by the municipal government. A failure to meet the goals could then result in legal repercussions and financial penalties for Berlin's state government.

A SUV is piled into the ground in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate
Greenpeace's Berlin division has been urging voters to vote "yes" on SundayImage: Michele Tantussi/REUTERS

"We wanted to minimize the chances that empty promises could continue to be made, so that just gives us more options to apply pressure on politicians to really hit the 2030 mark," Jessamine Davis, an activist from Klimaneustart Berlin, told DW. "Berlin declared a climate emergency and is not acting accordingly at the moment. There's no sign that emergency behavior is being implemented."

Lack of political support

At least 80% of Berlin's energy comes from fossil fuel sources. Few lawmakers in Berlin's state parliament, the Senate, believe seven years is enough to make the transition to renewable energy complete and are concerned about the short-term costs this would incur. 

The outgoing center-left city government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and post-communist Left Party had come out to urge Berliners to vote "no" on Sunday. But Berlin's environment and climate protection senator, Green Party parliamentary group leader Bettina Jarasch, has spoken out in support of the proposed amendment, saying the latest climate report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that the situation is "dramatic."

The cost of implementing climate neutrality by 2030 is estimated to run into the billions, as buildings need to be renovated and private transport curbed. Critics warn that bringing the target date forward would mean cutting back on urgent investments in other sectors, for example into childcare and education.

Young Germans fighting for climate agenda

The head of the Independent Association of Businesses Berlin-Brandenburg (UVB), Christian Amsinck, described the referendum as "dishonest" and said it was "conning" voters into believing that Berlin can become climate-neutral by 2030.

The initiators of the referendum have presented no plan for how the transition could be financed. But they argue that the transition would trigger investment in the regional economy to create sustainable jobs as part of the energy transition.

Burkhard Rhein, head of industry, energy and infrastructure policy at UVB, told DW that this is not the point. "Our main problem right now is not to create new jobs," Rhein said. "It's that we have a lack of qualified personnel in a lot of industries and companies. What we have as a problem is that we don't get into the doing. With the referendum, we are playing on the meta level. But companies are waiting for the framework."

Is bureaucracy stalling the energy transition?

Organizers at Klimaneustart Berlin are adamant that the 2030 climate-neutral target is achievable, pointing to the untapped potential of renewable energy resources such as solar and wind in the region.

"That's probably our biggest resource in terms of renewables, and it's just not being considered and in a climate emergency situation that should be the first thing that is addressed," Davis said, adding that Berlin also has 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) of available land in Brandenburg that could be used for wind power.

Legal cases to force action

Klimaneustart Berlin was launched in 2021 by a coalition of representatives from politics, science and civil society, with backing from groups including Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Germany's national cyclists association and the Sustainability Office at Berlin's Humboldt University. Support has also come from an investor couple in New York, Albert Wagner and Susan Danziger. Both have German citizenship and have previously donated to a group campaigning for the introduction of universal basic income in Berlin. 

The referendum in Berlin is the latest grassroots campaign to take on governments on climate change and pollution. In July 2022, the UN passed a resolution to declare the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right and the European Court of Justice has also ruled that citizens can sue governments if their health has been negatively affected by air pollution. 

Protest action in November 2022 outside the Town Hall in Berlin
Demonstrators wanted the referendum held on the same day as the Berlin state electionImage: Lena Lachnit/dpa/picture alliance

The amendment does not set out what sanctions would apply should the obligations not be met. The initiators say that drafting sanctions into the proposed law is a highly complex process and would have been far too time-consuming to make legally watertight — time campaigners say the planet does not have.

"The climate crisis is obviously such an urgent topic that we wanted to make the referendum happen as soon as possible and we thought it would make the most sense for the sanctions to be defined by experts in that area," Davis said.

The initiators of the referendum say 450,000 voters have applied for a postal ballot and they are cautiously optimistic that the amendment will be approved on Sunday.

"We're still very much in the stage where we're saying every single person that has the privilege to be eligible to vote needs to vote. It would be devastating if we lost on a handful of ballots," Davis said. 

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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