German citizens′ assembly calls for concrete climate action ahead of election | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 24.06.2021
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German citizens' assembly calls for concrete climate action ahead of election

A representative group of citizens has agreed on recommendations to help the German government cut emissions and fairly achieve its climate goals.

Wind turbines at a coal mine in Germany

Germany is lagging behind its climate pledges to clean up its industries

To a flurry of online applause and waving hands, citizens from across Germany agreed Wednesday night on more than 80 ways for the country to meet its commitments to slash emissions under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. 

"It was a lot of work," said Adnan Arslan, a 32-year-old participant in the virtual assembly from Velbert who works in manufacturing. "I think we did a good job on the recommendations — the rest is up to the politicians." 

The 160 participants in the democratic experiment were selected by lottery to represent a country of 83 million people with vastly differing opinions on how — and how fast — to green its economy. The group was randomly chosen within demographic constraints such as age, education and state or country of origin, but not selected to fit political views or voting intentions.

Supported by an expert panel of scientists, the assembly was tasked with working out how Germany could implement climate goals that are both fairer and more ambitious in the energy, mobility, construction and food sectors.

"It was not always easy to come to the same denominator," Arslan said. "But we did it and reached a consensus."

Citizens' assembly on climate change in Germany

A representative group of citizens were selected by lottery to advise the government

Citizen recommendations

The result is a catalog of recommendations to the federal government.

In the energy sector, most of the assembly voted for a coal phaseout by 2030. The government's 2038 deadline would see emissions shoot past its own targets. The assembly also voted to make the installation of photovoltaic panels on roofs compulsory, starting with new buildings in 2022.

By 2035, they suggest all electricity in Germany would have to come from green sources and that citizens should be granted the right to get electricity from renewable sources more cheaply than from oil, coal or gas. Oil-fired heating systems in new buildings would be banned and the installation of solar-powered systems made compulsory. 

To end the cycle of cheaply produced electronics made to break — creating continual demand for products that carry a carbon footprint — manufacturers would be forced to make devices that last at least 10 years.

Infographic of climate protection measures

Some of the biggest suggested changes are in transport. In addition to the massive expansion of buses, trains and freight transport, most participants demanded that by 2030 registrations of combustion engine vehicles should no longer be allowed. Subsidies would need to fall for cars and rise for bikes. 

A similar change would be needed for food. Agriculture would need to be transformed from an emission driver to become an active part of the climate solution by allocating subsidies based on the climate-friendliness of farms, reducing the number of animals kept as livestock for food and introducing a traffic light system on packaging that shows the environmental footprint of food products.

That would mean fewer sausages — and higher prices for barbecues.

"It is important to me that social justice does not suffer from climate policy," said Arslan. His attitude was met with broad consensus by the other participants. "That is my No. 1 priority."

A coal plant and a wind turbine by a coal mine in Neurath, Germany

Germany must cut its carbon pollution faster to meet its climate pledges

But with fewer subsidies going into polluting industries and more money coming to governments from carbon pricing, leaders could pay for climate justice through climate dividends and tax relief. 

"The climate crisis is the task of the century," said Wolfgang Lucht of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), who accompanied the process as an expert. "The results of the citizens' assembly do not reflect the views of an interest group... They are the result of a free negotiation process in working groups."

It shows that citizens are prepared to support substantial, goal-oriented, far-reaching measures to limit the climate crisis, he added.

A steelworker surrounded by orange light

Germany's export-reliant economy must clean up energy-intensive industrial processes like steel manufacturing

Not enough climate protection 

Germany raised its climate ambitions in May — after being chastised by its highest court for dumping the burden on future generations — and announced that it would hit climate neutrality by 2045, five years sooner than previously planned. But the details are still vague. The government has announced an immediate program for 2022 and funding volumes of up to €8 billion ($9.5 billion). Most of the savings are to come from the industry and energy sectors, the largest emitters to date. 

But together with scientists, the citizens' assembly has said the earlier net-zero target is still not enough. 

The warming of the planet depends on the total amount of greenhouse gas clogging up the atmosphere, not on when a country becomes climate neutral. In the interest of global fairness, the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) has proposed that countries be allocated a CO2 budget according to the size of their population. Germany's climate budget for the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) target under the Paris Agreement would be about 4 billion tons of CO2 — and would be used up by 2032. Experts say that making Germany climate neutral by 2045 would be 13 years too late.

"It is not enough to set targets for the distant future, emissions must be reduced immediately," said climate expert Niklas Höhne from the environmental research group NewClimate Institute.

Once this global CO2 budget is exceeded, the 1.5 C target can no longer be achieved. For this not to happen, "global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved from today by 2030," Höhne said. He added that Germany has a special role as one of the richest countries in the world, with per capita emissions twice as high as the global average.

Public support

For that reason, the citizens' assembly has called on Germany to cut emissions decisively now.

"At the moment we have the problem that we are still thinking in terms of individual measures," said Lucht. "Of course, at the national level, the fastest possible phaseout of coal-fired power generation is what will bring the most benefits the fastest."

A survey by the ARD-DeutschlandTrend at the beginning of June found most Germans think that citizens, the government and the EU are doing too little to protect the environment and the climate. The majority would accept some personal sacrifices like more expensive plane tickets, but not higher prices on milk and meat products.

The letters CO2 illuminated in flames in front of the Brandenburg Gat ein Berlin

Greenpeace activists illuminated the word CO2 with flames in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate during a May protest

If Germany really wants to get serious about climate protection, "you can't play one sector off against the other, everyone has to get involved," said Höhne.

Unlike an official petition or referendum, the recommendations of the citizens' climate assembly are not binding. And while politicians have been invited to discuss the suggestions, they are not under any obligation to adopt them.

Turning suggestions into policy

Citizens assemblies have a mixed track record.

In France, the government accepted less than half of the recommendations made by a citizens' assembly in the country's latest climate law, even though President Emmanuel Macron had previously announced he would adopt the results "unfiltered." 

But in Ireland, lawmakers showed that citizens' assemblies can work — and play an important function in social change. They helped legalize same-sex marriages and, in 2019, the Irish government passed several reforms to cut emissions 51% by 2030 at the suggestion of a 99-member-strong citizens' assembly. These included a recommendation to "ensure that climate change is at the heart of policy" covering everything from clean energy to electric vehicles and retrofitting buildings.

Citizens' assemblies are a "great opportunity" to overcome the perceived disconnect between citizens and this political process," said Okka Lou Mathis, a political scientist at the German Development Institute. They "simply create mutual acceptance or understanding."

Assemblies are particularly suitable for discussing controversial and divisive topics "where perhaps the politicians are often at a loss or the camps are divided," said Mathis.

The German citizens' assembly will officially hand over its recommendations to the government in September, shortly before the federal election — in which climate change will play a key role.

This article has been translated from German

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