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Citizens take on Germany's climate pledges

April 26, 2021

One hundred and sixty Germans, four major issues, one goal: for lawmakers to live up to their climate pledges. The Citizen Assembly is set to debate Germany's environmental ambitions and make sure its voices are heard.

Protesters throw an earth-shaped ball during the "Global Strike For Future" demonstration in Stockholm on May 24, 2019
Ordinary citizens around the world are increasingly making their voices heard in the climate debate Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Nackstrand

A group of 160 German citizens chosen at random from across the country will launch an experiment in participatory democracy this week, aiming to inspire public debate and get the government to follow through with its pledge to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

The Bürgerrat Klima, or Citizen Assembly, will follow the example set in the last few years by countries like Ireland, the United Kingdom and France. The concept, intended to directly involve citizens in the climate decisions that will shape their lives in the coming decades, is seen as a way for people to push for stronger climate policies and political action — though the previous experiments abroad have met with varying degrees of success.

Inspired by a 99-person Citizens' Assembly, the Irish government adopted a series of reforms in its 2019 climate bill aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 51% before the end of this decade. These included recommendations "to ensure climate change is at the centre of policy-making," and covered everything from clean tech and power generation to electric vehicles and plans to retrofit older buildings.

Extinction Rebellion climate activists stage a protest during a "peaceful disruption" of UK parliament, wearing hair rollers and aprons that say "Tell the Truth"
Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK led to the creation of a citizens' assemblyImage: Reuters/T. Jacobs
A group of people meet to discuss France's climate goals
France's citizens' assembly put forward 149 green proposals to help the country reach its climate goalsImage: Katrin Baumann

But in France, where 150 participants submitted bold proposals that included a ban on domestic flights and making ecocide a crime, lawmakers have been less enthusiastic about taking the measures on board. A new climate and resilience bill, which aims to cut France's CO2 emissions by 40% over the next decade and is due to be adopted later this year, has incorporated less than half of the group's ideas. Greenpeace has said the proposed bill would have been "ambitious 15 or 20 years ago."

Solutions needed in 'decisive phase for the climate'

Germany's Citizen Assembly, set up by the German branch of the Scientists 4 Future organization and the Bürgerbegehren Klimaschutz climate action group, will come together for the first time on April 26. For two months thereafter, the 160 participants will meet 12 times to jointly develop their vision for how Germany can meet its goals under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Small groups will break off to consult with experts in the field and come up with concrete solutions in the four main topic areas: mobility, energy, buildings and heating and the production and consumption of food.

After their final session in June, the entire group will vote on which of their non-binding recommendations will be sent on to the government — just ahead of the final campaign push for Germany's federal election in September.

How green is Germany really?

Lisa Badum, a climate policy spokesperson for the environmentalist Green party, told DW she was looking forward to the renewed debate inspired by the assembly's recommendations, and was urging a bipartisan response from her colleagues in Berlin.

"It's important that not just one party says it will take [the assembly] seriously and discuss its findings, but that all democratic parties do so," she said, adding that there will still be a few weeks to debate the proposals in parliament before the election on September 26.

"We're in the decisive phase for the climate, and all parties have to get to the root of the matter and come up with solutions for ways to restructure our economic system, which is destroying our livelihoods in its current form. And the citizen climate assembly will shine a spotlight on that," she added.

Felix Jansen is communications director for the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), which publicly supports the work of the citizen assembly. He believes that nearly all of Germany's political parties — climate-skeptic Alternative for Germany aside — have begun to realize the urgency of the climate crisis in recent years, due in part to electoral gains by the Greens. And faced with this realization, he says it's crucial to listen to a variety of voices.

"There are areas where it's incredibly important to listen to the experts — where it's simply a matter of pure facts," he said. But he, and Badum, believe it's equally important to hear the views of laypeople from across the age and social spectrums.

"We have many scientific committees that advise us on the energy transition and climate change, and that's great. But there are few forums where citizens can have their say," said Badum. "All citizens are experts in their own lives and are able to contribute measures that make sense from their point of view."

'We are already building the cities of 2050 today'

Jansen believes the citizen assembly is also a chance for DGNB to see whether its sustainable building message, which it has been promoting since 2007, is getting through to the public.

"It's definitely an issue which has flown under the radar until now, which is sort of crazy when you consider the role the building sector plays in climate protection," he said. "If we want to achieve climate neutrality in Europe and in Germany, this is a crucial area."

A row of older apartment blocks dating from the late 19th-early 20th century in Cologne
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress
Two older homes side by side, one renovated, one not
Much of Germany's housing stock was built before 1990Image: Arno Rude/Zoonar/picture-alliance

Germany, which aims to become carbon neutral in all sectors — including construction — by mid-century, faces a huge challenge. About a third of the country's total energy consumption went to heat space and water in buildings, according to 2018 government figures. Greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector accounted for around 14% of Germany's total emissions — and almost all of that was from heating the country's stock of some 22 million buildings, mainly with oil and natural gas.

More than 76% of Germany's housing stock was built before 1990, according to the latest German census carried out in 2011. Improved insulation, clean technologies like heat pumps and switching to renewable energies could go a long way to greening these aging buildings — but cost, a lack of clear climate-friendly policies and incentives and the sheer number of homeowners, landlords and other stakeholders has made progress sluggish.

The European Union has made plans to renovate and improve the housing stock across the bloc part of its EU Green Deal. According to EU figures, some 75% of the EU's building stock is energy inefficient.

However, Jansen stressed that it was also important to make changes to current construction projects. "We are already building the cities of 2050 today," he said, adding that because so much of what's being developed now will still be standing in decades to come, there is no time to wait for crucial climate decisions.

"The changes [to the building industry] that are necessary today already require a great deal of effort. And the longer we wait, the more painful it will become and the more limitations we'll encounter. That's why it's so important to increasingly focus on this issue and take action at an early stage," he said.

Ongoing exchange between government, citizens is needed

Both Jansen and Badum hope the process begun by the 160 Germans this week will mark the start of an ongoing exchange between citizens and the government on climate in the years ahead.

"Germany is a country that is very much influenced by the work of [industry] lobbyists," said Jansen. "A lot of the discussion happens at the elite level, and you don't really know whether everyone's views are being considered."

"Each group is, in a way, speaking in its own echo chamber — this dialogue is just not taking place," said Badum. "But if we include the citizens' points of view, and if they're also strongly engaged with the process, that will naturally also give us a stronger political mandate."

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues