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Merkel's Cabinet agrees 'climate packet'

September 20, 2019

Germany's government has agreed climate policies including carbon dioxide pricing via emission certificates, costlier fuels, cheaper rail, and a ban on oil heaters from 2026. A leading Green was "bitterly disappointed."

Berlin PK Klimakabinett der Bundesregierung
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz, delivered a slew of supposed climate-rescue measures Friday, aimed at halving Germany's carbon emissions by 2030 to avoid defaulting on its 2015 Paris treaty promises.

The outcome of marathon talks within Merkel's "climate cabinet," comprising conservative and center-left minsters and coinciding with worldwide "Fridays for Future" protests, was decried by environmentalists as haphazard and too little.

Read more: Cities leading the transition to renewables

Scholz, in his role as finance minister, described the policies as "socially balanced climate protection," costing the government a total of €54 billion ($61 billion) by 2023, and a "chance" to modernize German industry and create innovative new jobs.

"In the past we haven't achieved enough for climate protection and the emission of carbon dioxide [from burning fossil fuels] is not sinking fast enough," he admitted.

Chancellor Merkel, who holds a PhD in quantum chemistry and is due to attend a UN climate summit in New York next Monday, reserved special praise for Swedish "Fridays for Future" initiator Greta Thunberg's call that the world should "unite behind the science."

Costlier fuel, cheaper rail tickets

Cabinet's agreed measures would raise motorists' petrol (gasoline) and diesel prices in increments by 2026, in line with the EU's existing regime of carbon emissions certificates.

CO2 emitted in Germany would cost 10 euros per ton, rising to 35 euros per ton by 2025.

Commuters would see increased tax rebates, cheaper train travel — through lower sales tax on tickets — and higher tax on short-haul flights.

Subsidies for electric vehicles — currently struggling to increase their share of the German car market — will be boosted for cars costing less than €40,000. Vehicle tax costs would also be aligned more closely to cars' emissions.

Berlin Kabinettausschuss Klimaschutz im Bundeskanzleramt
It took 18 hours of overnight 'climate cabinet' talks Image: Imago Images/photothek/J. Gaerntner

From 2026 installation of oil-fired heating in buildings would be banned in favor of more climate-friendly alternatives, coupled with a bid to improve buildings' insulation standards.

Industry reactions mixed 

Amid mixed reactions from industry, Holger Bingmann, president of the German Federation of Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA), said that the Cabinet's decision in favor of emissions certificates was "fully correct" but added that he was skeptical about some costly measures which he thought would not bring substantial benefits. 

German DIW economic research institute climate expert Claudia Kemfert — long critical of motor- and aviation-sector tax "privileges" — said Cabinet's decisions "will not suffice to reach [Germany's] climate targets for 2030."

"We're paying a lot of environmentally harmful subsidies. They must be phased out," Kemfert told the television channel of the newspaper Die Welt.

The VDA automobile federation's president, Bernhard Mattes, described recent public debate, especially "attacks" on SUV cross-country vehicles, as "overheated." The VDA was convinced that climate goals could only be reached "with the modern car," he added.

'Bitterly disappointed'

Opposition Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock described Friday's policy announcement as "slow, sloppy and non-committal."

"I am bitterly disappointed," said Baerbock, adding that the Merkel-Scholz package amounted to an abandonment of Germany's commitments made in Paris in 2015.

The German section of Fridays for Future tweeted that Cabinet's package was "no breakthrough" and "had nothing to do" with confining world temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) despite months of massive public pressure.

Greenpeace director Martin Kaiser accused Merkel's conservatives especially of blocking wide-ranging carbon cuts needed to end "stagnating far too high" emissions and described intended fuel pricing as "laughable."

Merkel's government had still not understood the need to urgently act, asserted Olaf Tschimpke of NABU, the German branch of Birdlife International, which regards birds as key indicators of habitat wellbeing.

Mojib Latif, climate researcher and president of the German section of the Club of Rome, told WDR public broadcasting he was "appalled" and "absolutely disappointed" by Cabinet's policies, which should have started at Europe's current emission price of €30 per ton of carbon dioxide, heading for €180.

Mojib Latif Metereologe
Researcher Mojib Latif is 'appalled' by Cabinet policiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Instead of being a Merkel Cabinet "grand plan" (grosse Wurf), the policy packet was "non-binding" and without consequences for German ministries "when they don't reach their targets," said Latif.

General secretary of the opposition business-friendly FDP, Linda Teuteberg, described the policy packet as a "hodgepodge of uncoordinated single measures."

Germany sluggish

Berlin's stated aim is to cut Germany's carbon gas emissions by 55% by 2030 — in comparison with 1990 levels. This translates as a cut from current annual emissions of 866 million tons to 563 million tons per year within a decade.

Germany is already set to miss its climate target for next year. Merkel's tenure has seen expansion of renewables such as wind and solar but sluggishness in phasing out coal-fired power stations.

The EU's biggest economy accounts for 2% of total worldwide emissions.

Even if all nations make the full cuts promised in Paris, global warming is likely to soar 2.9 degrees Celsius this century — almost twice the 1.5 degree limit agreed, warns Climate Action Tracker.

Climate drive backed by two-thirds

A survey released by German public broadcaster ARD on Friday showed that 63% of German voters believed Berlin should prioritize climate protection.

"[Public] pressure from the streets has worked," said Achim Wambach, the president of the Mannheim-based European Center for Economic Research (ZEW). 

Climate demonstration in Berlin - Action for the Planet

ipj/msh (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)