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The German Environment Ministry this week unveiled a set of highly ambitious proposals that would lead Germany to become the world's most energy-efficient country in the coming years.
Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel tackles the "inconvenient truth" of pollution
Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, that the time had come to act. "We have all witnessed the dangers of climate change in the last few months. We only saw winter in the calendar in Germany," he said, alluding to last year's unusually mild winter.
Gabriel reminded the MPs that Germany needs to improve its energy efficiency by three percent per year in order to meet the EU target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 20 percent below 1990-levels by 2020.
But the Environment Minister went further, proposing an eight-point plan that includes cutting Germany's CO2 emissions by 40 percent within 13 years. Gabriel said he wanted to enlist industry's help in pursuing this ambitious goal.
"We should set ourselves the goal of making Germany the most energy-efficient country in the world," Gabriel told the MPs in Berlin.
Efficiency from the bottom up
German railways: the better way to travel, says Gabriel
The action plan also calls on ordinary citizens to contribute to the fight against global warming, and envisions an 11-percent reduction in electricity use by 2020. This alone would save 40 million tons of CO2, Gabriel said.
The Social Democrat minister also encouraged Germans to take the train more often as part of the effort. Gabriel told the German tabloid Bild Zeitung on Thursday that he plans to further subsidize Germany's extensive railway system to lure travellers away from inexpensive short-haul flights with airlines such as Germanwings or Ryanair.
"We must ensure that train services are able to compete with air travel," Gabriel said, and suggested that train tickets should qualify for a sales tax break that would allow the Deutsche Bahn AG to reduce ticket prices for consumers.
"There is no tax on airline fuel, but the rail operator must pay the full value-added tax on the sale of long-distance tickets," Gabriel complained to the Bundestag. "That is unfair and cannot remain that way."
Despite the green talk, Germany plans to build more coal power plants
Gabriel also unveiled plans to modernize power stations across Germany. He said he wants to double the number of combined heat and power plants that trap and reuse heat generated in power production instead of releasing it.
The German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to generate over a quarter of its power from environmentally friendly sources by 2020, according to Gabriel. Wind turbines, photovoltaic (solar) panels and biofuels are some of the most common forms of green energy, and they have become a formidable market force in Germany.
But Gabriel criticized the government's tacit approval of plans to build almost 30 new coal power plants on German soil, and he further attacked the conservative camp for advocating nuclear power as a "green" alternative. Nuclear power plants emit near-zero greenhouse gases, but nuclear waste and the possibility of a meltdown pose a different kind of environmental threat.
Investing in efficiency
Three billion euros is a lot, but still better than constant droughts
Gabriel's program would cost the German government three billion euros ($4.1 billion) over the next three years, according to the Environment Ministry's own estimates. The program aims to slash 270 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Despite the country's long tradition of progressive green policies, Germany currently emits more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, making it the world's sixth-largest polluter.
A German economic think-tank recently calculated that the consequences of unfettered cliamte change would cost Germany more than 130 billion euros by the middle of the century. Compared to this sum, Gabriel's request for an additional three billion euros seems like a negligable investment in the future.
Environmental protection groups welcomed Gabriel's plans, which they described as ambitious, but cautioned that words had to be followed by action.
But Gabriel warned that Germany's best efforts would be useless if the world did not follow suit. Chancellor Merkel has made climate change a high priority at the June G8 summit in Germany, but US President Bush, leader of the world's heaviest-polluting nation, has been reluctant to sign on to greenhouse gas regulations.
"If we succeed in breaking the deadlock between the United States and some industrial countries on the one hand and developing countries on the other, the chances don't look bad," Gabriel said. "I am quite optimistic."