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Could Germany be charged with ecocide?

November 16, 2020

In award-winning director Andres Veiel's film "Ecocide," Germany stands trial at the International Court of Justice for its destructive climate policies.

Film still from Ökozid showing people in a courtroom
Image: 2020 Julia Terjung/Zero one film

In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands became the first highest-level domestic court to establish a government's legal duty to prevent climate change in line with its human rights obligations. It was a historic ruling.

Along with the Dutch case, initially filed in 2013, there are now hundreds of similar climate justice lawsuits ongoing around the world. Most recently, young activists from Portugal have filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against 33 industrialized countries, alleging that they have failed to enact the emission cuts needed to protect their futures.

A new German TV film, titled Ökozid (Ecocide), fictionalizes a similar court case set in 2034. In it, a coalition of 31 countries from the Global South sue the Federal Republic of Germany. The International Court of Justice has to determine if the German state violated its obligation to protect the right to life of all human beings by failing to act against climate change.

Germany's climate protection policy on trial

Using this fictional framework, director Andres Veiel digs into Germany's environmental policies from 1998 to 2020. The project was initiated in reaction to the worryingly hot summer of 2018. With his team, Veiel undertook a "very detailed fact-finding research on Germany's climate protection policy," he told DW.

Director Andres Veiel
Director Andres Veiel co-wrote the screenplay with Jutta DobersteinImage: Karsten Kampf

The filmmaker is renowned in Germany for his projects involving such in-depth research. With his documentary Black Box BRD (2001), Veiel depicted the contrasts between the lives and deaths of a Deutsche Bank chairman killed by a car bomb in 1989 and the main suspect of the attack, a member of the far-left terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF). For Beuys, a 2017 documentary on the artist Joseph Beuys, he worked with several hundred hours of archival footage and more than 20,000 photographs.

For this TV project, it quickly became clear that a fictional frame would be more appropriate than trying "to compete with the BBC with another documentary on climate," Veiel said, adding that his intention was to go further and explore the question: How far can courts go to achieve climate justice? 

Germany's coal exit by 2038

But even though the film is set in the future, the fictional court case refers to Germany's real-life policies.

By 2034, Germany will still have four years to go before it completes the shutdown of all its coal-fired power plants, a deadline set by a 2020 law. The legislation was deemed a "great political success for all those who care about the climate-friendly future of our children and grandchildren" by the current environment minister, but it was strongly criticized by activists for not acting quickly enough on the climate emergency.

Garzweiler lignite mine
The Garzweiler mine: Its planned expansion would lead to the destruction of five villagesImage: picture-alliance/J. Tack

No other country burns as much lignite as Germany. Also known as brown coal, it's the cheapest yet dirtiest form of energy, and hundreds of villages have been demolished to make way for open-pit brown coal mining. 

The films shows how traditionally strong relations between miners' labor unions and political rulers allowed a polluting energy policy to be extended, even as a significant number of jobs were tied to shifting to renewable energy forms. 

Politicians have often argued that a more consistent climate protection policy would have weakened Germany's position as an industrial leader.

"But the opposite would have actually happened," Veiel maintained. "Through this short-sighted and short-term reliance on conventional energy, including coal-fired power plants, Germany has missed the window of opportunity to develop technologies such as hydrogen or electromobility."

Meanwhile, Californian and Chinese companies have taken the lead in those fields. "We have lost years on many levels. Out of a short-term pursuit of profit, necessary long-term goals were not pursued," the director said.

The system's crimes against the environment

Through his research for the film, Veiel was also shocked by "Germany's systemic failure" to deal with the climate emergency. It didn't just happen once to a certain minister under the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, or the previous chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, he said: "Year after year, there have been repeated attempts to weaken and relativize or even completely cancel out the EU Commission's stricter requirements." 

Despite her international reputation as the "climate chancellor," there's a deep gap between Merkel's claims and demands and what is actually implemented, Veiel says. 

Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel in front of a glacier
Follwoing a 2007 trip to Greenland to inspect the impact of climate change, Merkel protected luxury cars from restrictions on CO2 emissionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

One example detailed in the film shows how the automobile industry found a way to promote its newly developed SUVs as "climate-friendly," even though the heavy car models launched by BMW and Daimler in 2005 needed up to 50% more fuel than comparable compact vehicles. 
When the European Commission created the directive to have cars labeled to inform consumers on a model's CO2 efficiency, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) came up with a clever solution that was enforced by the German government against the Commission in 2009. The calculation of the CO2 limit was linked to the weight of the vehicle: Heavier models were allowed more emissions — which is how some SUVs obtained a better rating than compact cars.

Criminalizing ecocide

A growing number of campaigners are demanding that ecocide, which literally means "killing the environment," should become a crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. They're not just radical activists; even French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that he would hold a referendum on whether ecocide should be criminalized under French law.

And that's one aspect portrayed in Ökozid that gives Veiel hope: the strengthened democratization of supranational institutions entitled to sanction the national governments' actions affecting the entire planet, such as the 2034 version of the International Court of Justice imagined in the film.

"That's still utopian at the moment," says the director. "But it's something that has to and that will come." 

The German-language movie Ökozid, by Andres Veiel, will be broadcast on German public television on November 18.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture