1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Pandemic helped Germany achieve its 2020 climate targets

Gero Rueter
January 4, 2021

With coal power collapsing, air travel down and green power accounting for 50% of the national grid, Germany hit its 2020 climate targets. But that trend could easily be reversed.

Image of a coal plant in eastern Germany
Coal-fired energy is on the decline in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/SvenSimon/F. Hoemann

In 2007, under Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership, the German government pledged a 40% carbon emissions cut by 2020. According to analysis by Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende — which translates to energy transition — last year's carbon emissions were down by 42.3% over 1990 levels, meaning the country has clearly achieved its stated goal.

According to Agora analysis, Germany emitted 722 million tons of CO2 last year, 82 million tons less than in 2019 — which amounts to a decrease of 10%.

Agora attributes two thirds of the reduction to the coronavirus pandemic: most notably a signifcant drop in energy usage in industry, resulting in a CO2 emissions fall of more than 50 million tons compared to 2019.

Without the crisis, the drop would have been closer to 25 million tons, Agora estimates. In this scenario, Germany would only have achieved a 38% reduction in emissions compared to 1990, and would therefore have missed its target.

Electricity mix in Germany 2020 shown in an infographic
For the first time, renewable energy counted for more than 50% of the national electricity grid

"The only real impacts of climate protection in 2020 were in the electricity sector, where CO2 reductions can be traced back to the replacement of coal by gas and renewables," Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende, told DW.

Over 50% green electricity in grid

In 2020, the share of green electricity in the German power grid was 50.5%, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE). In the previous year, this share was 46%. In 2020, wind power alone comprised around 27% of electricity demand, more than lignite  (17%) and hard coal (7%) combined. Solar panels accounted for 10% of the German electricity demand, biomass power plants 9% and hydropower 4%.

While wind turbines generated 5% more electricity than in the previous year and solar claimed a 7% share of the mix, electricity generation using lignite (-20%) and hard coal (-28%) both fell significantly. In 2019, the year-over-year decline in coal-fired generation was even steeper in each case, at 22% and 33% respectively.

"Coal-fired power is in deep decline," Graichen said, adding that the trend will "continue in the coming years."

He says this is partly down to the expansion of renewable energies and partly the increased price for CO2, which makes coal-fired power more expensive and increasingly unprofitable. In addition to renewables, gas-fired power plants often supply electricity more cheaply.

 Agora says this means neighboring countries with gas-fired power plants can produce their own electricity more cheaply, and don't have to rely on Germany for supply. In  2020,  a total of 3% of Germany's electricity was exported, half the 2019 amount.  

Less air traffic saves a lot of CO2

Aviation has so far played a subordinate role in Germany's climate targets, as only domestic air traffic is counted in the assessment of national emissions. The collapse of the aviation sector has had a positive effect on the climate.

According to Agora, aircraft taking off in Germany in 2019 were equivalent in their emissions impact to 80 million tons of CO2 per year. Preliminary 2020 figures indicate that sales of kerosene in the country fell by 55% compared to the previous year. Sales of diesel and gasoline for cars and trucks fell by 9%, and the associated CO2 reduction is around 14 million tons.

Infographic showing the way to limit emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels
The way to a limit to rise in temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius still involves thousands of millions of tons of emissions

On course for Paris climate target?

To meet the 1.5 degree limit, CO2 emissions must now continue to fall significantly and continuously, according to a Wuppertal Institute study.

"Germany has to become CO2-neutral by 2035. Otherwise, it will not be able to make an adequate contribution to achieving the 1.5-degree Celsius target," says energy and climate researcher Manfred Fischedick, head of the Wuppertal Institute.

"From a technical and economic point of view, this is extremely challenging, but in principle it is quite possible," he added.

Renewable energy sources are key. Fischedick and his colleagues recommend solar and wind expansion of at least 25 to 30 gigawatts per year. This is almost three to five times faster than growth witnessed in the sector in recent years.

Agora Energiewende says achieving climate neutrality by 2050 will require solar and wind expansion to the tune of 15.5 gigawatts annually in the coming years. "We'd need to kick things up a gear," Graichen said.

At the moment, the German government's plans to expand renewable energy are far from where they need to be to meet the Paris climate goals or the EU climate target set for 2030. So far, plans only foresee a total annual wind and solar expansion of around 10 gigawatts.

Graichen also expects greenhouse gases to rise "as soon as the economy picks up again". In 2021, electricity consumption could also increase more than the growth in renewables.

"For 2021, we therefore expect more emissions in total," he said. "Only rapid climate policy action can counteract this."

This article was adapted from German