The European Union has ratified an ambitious pact to reduce greenhouse gases. Now, the British government is pushing for its own legally binding targets to reduce emissions even more. Is Germany ready for the same?
Germans have debated forgoing holidays to combat global warming
Prime Minister Tony Blair called a draft climate change bill in the UK "revolutionary." If it is passed, it would impose legally binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent by 2050.
In the past few weeks, German politicians have come up with all sorts of suggestions for trying to reduce emissions and protect the environment -- everything from staying home on vacation rather than flying to faraway places to banning "stand-by" modes on electric appliances.
DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Stefan Thomas at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
Chancellor Angela Merkel played a major role in the EU's agreement last week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet Britain has now taken it a step further and proposed a new law that would set legally binding limits on greenhouse gases. Could Germany still be doing more?
Stefan Thomas of the Wuppertal Institute
In their treaty, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany's ruling coalition have set out a political target of limiting CO2 emissions by 30 percent in Germany without condition, and more if the EU commits itself to the same. So it's a similar target to the one in Great Britain, at least for 2020. Also, the German parliament has adopted a long-term target of a 60-80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, so things are similar in both countries.
For me, the question is whether it is really a step forward to have legally binding commitments on the part of the government, or if it isn't more important to look at what the governments are actually doing to reach those targets.
What do you see the German government doing?
It has developed good policies on renewable energies for the production of electricity; it has also developed policies on renewable energies for the production of heat and cooling, and more importantly, also for energy efficiency in the heating sector. It could do more on energy efficiency regarding electricity end use.
German Green party parliamentary leader Renate Künast has said the "stand-by mode" in many appliances should be done away with. What do you think?
Things need to be done wherever possible to conserve energy. Where stand-by mode is need for certain appliances, it should be reduced to using one kilowatt per hour or less. Technology exists for that and it would also be more cost-effective. It is expected that the European Commission will present a proposal for a limit to stand-by energy consumption within the next one or two years.
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Is responsibility merely being pushed onto the "little guy"? What about big factories which may be very inefficient?
We must all do our share. The producers of goods must do what they can to reduce energy consumption; there must be inroads in the construction sector to improve energy efficiency in homes and office buildings and energy-consuming industries must do everything they can to conserve energy. They can also save a lot of money in the process. People in the residential sector and in private households, of course, must also do something. I see the role of the government in setting the right framework and providing incentives.
You said the technology exists for improving efficiency in the stand-by mode of appliances. Why isn't that being translated into the creation of new products and appliances?
A lot has been achieved already. Stand-by consumption among televisions and VCRs is much lower than it was five or 10 years ago, but as long as there is no enforcement or performance standards, and no legal requirements to provide consumption figures in stand-by modes or even when appliances are being used, there is not enough incentive for manufacturers to optimize all their products. Maximum stand-by power requirements could be made legally binding, making stand-by modes in new products limited to one kilowatt. Also, mandatory labels should be introduced informing consumers about the television they intend to buy actually consumes in energy; such labels already exist for refrigerators and washing machines.
Chancellor Merkel and European Commission head Barroso at the EU summit on the climate and energy this month
Along a different vein, German politicians have called for reducing speed limits on German highways to help reduce CO2 emissions. Does that make sense?
Yes. One study shows that the direct effect of imposing speed limits would be a reduction of two percent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector. But, since the German car industry is so important in Germany, restricting speeds would send a signal to both sides of the market -- to the buyers and the manufacturers -- that there is not much use in building bigger and heavier cars with stronger motors.
Of course, speed limits would have the added effect of making roads safer as fewer accidents would occur.
Are we still thinking too small in terms of climate change and environmental protection?
It's hard for a lot of people to know where to start. I think we are making progress in many countries, but a lot still needs to be done. The buildings in most European countries must be reviewed. Of course, there's an incentive now with high energy prices to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Education and financial incentives for builders and consumers are also essential to encourage people to take the initiative and apply alternatives that could be more energy efficient, such as insulating their homes, or replacing water heaters with condensing or solar systems. The potential is there for mitigating climate change. Energy efficiency can reduce consumption by about half by the middle of this century. More than half of the remaining energy needs could be provided by renewable energies. Both energy efficiency improvements and renewable energies need investments initially, but they then save energy. And so, if we balance the higher initials investments with the savings that come later, the net extra costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions are quite minimal.