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Germany finally ups ante on climate protection

March 8, 2019

Germany was long a leader on climate protection, but in recent years has slipped in its efforts to combat carbon emissions. These days, the government is finding it tough to even unite on a climate protection law.

A stop sign placed by activists near Germany's Schwarze Pumpe coal plant
Image: imago/photothek

When it comes to climate protection, politicians from Germany's governing coalition parties — Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), along with the Social Democrats (SPD) — have lately been in a tizzy. Just recently, Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze (SPD) presented a first draft of a climate protection act to be adopted by September, or so hoped those involved. And already there is trouble.

"We stand for climate protection, but we want to make it reasonable," said CDU parliamentary party leader Ralph Brinkhaus. "We have to do this together with the people in this country and not from above through prohibitions and regulations."

Read more: Students fed up with political inaction on climate — and Merkel responds

Merkel's own party dragging feet on climate initiatives

What happened? Schulze's proposal provides for all relevant government agencies to put forward their own ideas on how to achieve a whopping 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in their respective sectors by 2030 — in a legally binding way. To date, each successive German government has simply promised an across-the-board reduction in emissions.

Though that method worked fairly well as a motivator for many years, that's no longer the case. The goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 40 percent by 2020 won't be reached. Now, sectors that have so far contributed little to climate protection in Germany, such as transport, are being called on to deliver. But German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) fears overly strict conditions for motorists and industry. And many of his fellow party MPs are with him.

Read more: Germany's coal phaseout gaining ground internationally

A rapid slide down the priority list

Twelve years ago, at the beginning of Angela Merkel's (CDU) chancellorship, things were different. Germany organized the G7 summit in Heiligendamm; climate protection was the most important topic.

"If you look at the development of greenhouse gas emissions, ten years ago, Germany was actually a pioneer in climate protection and the world's ‘one-eyed blind man,'" said Christoph Bals, climate expert for the Germanwatch environmental group.

These days, no one speaks in terms of there being a leader in reducing emissions, which have either stagnated in recent years or even slightly increased.

"It's as if they've only just found out we need to do something like climate protection. I don't know what kind of world they've been living in, and whether they've been watching news in recent years," Green Party leader Robert Habeck said, adding that [politicians] have to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Read more: Just how Green are Germany's Greens?

EU warns Germany on air pollution

Climate protection law part of coalition government deal

The power-sharing agreement struck in early 2018 by the CDU/CSU and the SPD set out passing climate protection law as a goal of Merkel's current government, stating the government's intention "to pass a law that ensures compliance with the 2030 climate protection goals."

This time, the government reportedly wants to ensure that compliance with the climate goal is binding. So Environment Minister Schulze is pressing on with her efforts, which would imply emissions cuts in industries including manufacturing, transportation and agriculture as well as the modernization of buildings as a way of saving heating energy.

Read more:

Afraid of painful steps

But implementation is causing great difficulties for the governing parties. For Christoph Bals of Germanwatch, this explains why German climate policy has lost considerable momentum. For many years, the government has been dealing with more popular goals, such as the expansion of renewable energies. To get ahead now, painful steps will be needed: Restrictions on motorists, and phasing out coal power, for example.

Many politicians "don't dare tackle the serious structural change issues in the coal, transportation, building, agriculture and manufacturing sectors," Bals told DW.

Only a few weeks ago, a commission set up for that purpose officially recommended withdrawing from dependence on coal energy — but not until 2038, which many climate experts consider much too late.

DW's Jens Thurau and Germany Environment Minister Svenja Schulze at COP24
Environment Minister Schulze had a lot to answer for at COP24 in KatowiceImage: DW/M. Koschyk

Financial penalties for noncompliance possible

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland (COP24) last December, Germany was already coming under significant pressure. The internationally renowned climate researcher Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Climate Impact Research Institute in Potsdam, could barely contain his fury towards the Germans: "The deficit is insane. Not a single state is doing enough. We are just slamming this planet up against a wall!"

However, in an interview with DW, the environment minister defended Germany's climate progress from detractors: "We are the only industrialized country that has both abandoned nuclear power and announced a coal phaseout — and already relies on renewable sources for a third of its energy needs."

Germany being a manufacturing country, Schulze said, makes these achievements all the more noteworthy.

But the minister also acknowledged that these successes are the results of past action. She now wants to ensure that Germany — which as an EU member state committed itself to the bloc's environmental protection goals — will avoid having to pay fines if it does not achieve them. That could come to pass within a year — and be a major fall from grace for the former climate pioneer.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau