Opinion: In 2018, Germany quit being global climate leader | Opinion | DW | 25.12.2018
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Opinion: In 2018, Germany quit being global climate leader

Scientists issued urgent warnings about climate change in 2018. Germany's summertime temperatures hit record highs. Nevertheless, the government has lost its enthusiasm for tackling climate issues, Jens Thurau writes.

In summer 2018, Germany's beer gardens were overflowing with people. The nighttime heat rivaled temperatures in southern Italy. A national drought led to crop failures and rivers so low that the shipping routes became impassable. Forest fires raged with an intensity that the country had never seen before. Welcome to Germany in the era of climate change.

In a special report published in early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insisted that countries set new and stricter climate targets. According to opinion polls, Germans, too, overwhelmingly believed that climate change was a problem; many people are worried about it. At the same time in Germany, a country with a reputation as a world leader on environmental protection, courts were enforcing driving bans on diesel cars in more and more cities because they exceed the European Union's emissions limits. Politicians held frantic summits on diesel. None of this as helped, and the highest-powered cars produced in Germany continue to emit too many harmful substances! The government has finally acknowledged that its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 is not even remotely achievable.

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a Social Democrat, performed a bizarre balancing act at the World Climate Summit in Poland earlier this month. Like the leaders of developing countries, small island nations and other states committed to tackling climate change, she called for more to be done to address the problem — however, she rejected demands for a swift end to reliance on coal. Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, told Schulze on stage in Katowice that Germany's climate policy had become a joke. Schulze did not respond. However, back in Germany, Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier, of the Christian Democrats (CDU), announced on television that Schulze's message of solidarity with impoverished island countries had not been agreed in advance, and so did not represent the position of Germany's grand coalition government as a whole.

Jens Thurau and Svenja Schulze at COP24 (DW/M. Koschyk)

DW's Jens Thurau spoke with Minister Schulze in Poland

A dubious honor

Earlier this summer, the government had impaneled 28 people from the political and business sectors and the fields of science and environmental advocacy to recommend a deadline for Germany to cease coal production. This was supposed to be clarified by December, in time for the climate conference, because coal, and brown coal in particular, is the No. 1 climate polluter.

At a press conference in Berlin, however, the premiers of the eastern states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg told the federal government not to give up on coal just yet. There are 10,000 people still working in coal mines in eastern Germany, where opinion polls show that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which denies that climate change is caused by human activity, is ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in some instances. At the press conference, it was clear that the three state leaders were afraid of the AfD. Later, they used their influence to ensure that the coal commission was unable to reach an agreement.

Now the vote on when to stop producing coal won't take place until 2019. That's a fiasco. At the conference, the Climate Action Network awarded Germany its Fossil of the Day prize, which goes to countries that contribute the most to climate change. Saudi Arabia often receives it, and the United States. And, now, the winner is Germany. That's embarrassing.

Merkel, once the "climate chancellor," has said not a word about any of this. It's not an issue that you can score points with in Germany anymore. People worry about the climate, but real action — say, building wind turbines or closing collieries — is seldom taken. Almost 40 percent of electricity in Germany already comes from renewables, but the country needs to catch up when it comes to transportation and construction. And there has to be an end date for the use of coal. All of this is bad news, because it all requires action.

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