By Jonas Reichert
On the one hand, Germany wants to be a role model for climate protection, which started already years ago when the country changed its energy production towards using renewable energy sources. It has also seen huge gains for the Greens in the European Election this spring and the rise of a huge climate protection movement among the young. On the other hand, Germany is the biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the EU in total and per citizen, still relies heavily on coal and will fail its own climate targets next year. A new policy package due to bring Germany back on track seems to fail tremendously.
Germany’s youth, long bemoaned as unpolitical, has begun to fight for its future. Starting from Sweden the climate movement “Skolstrejk för klimatet” spread to Germany and brings there as “Fridays for Future” every week thousands of young people on the streets. While the first strike in Sweden took place already in the end of August, the first demonstration in Germany took place three and a half months later on the seventh of December in Bad Segeberg, Schleswig-Holstein. One week later around four hundred protesters in nearby Kiel achieved for the first time broader news coverage.
What started as a small group is now a huge, organised movement with lists of demands. It is organised in more than four hundred local groups and arranges weekly demonstrations in many major German cities. The biggest demonstration took place at the twentieth of September 2019, when according to Fridays for Future 1.4 million people in 620 cities took to the streets. Their list of demands include net emission to be cut to zero by 2035 and the abolishment of coal power plants by 2030. They also demand the end of subsidies for fossil fuels, the shutdown of one quarter of coal power plants and a price for carbon dioxide of 180€ per metric tonne by the end of the year. And it is not only the youth which demands action. Scientists of different fields have organised themselves as “Scientists for Future”. A statement urging for immediate action was signed by nearly 27.000 scientists in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “Parents for Future” was formed as a counterpart to Fridays for Future bringing together adults who support the demands.
At first sight the demonstrations may seem unnecessary. Germany set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emission already in 2011 and was one of the backers of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Germany committed to the 2 degree target and wanted to set targets to achieve the 1.5 degree target. Germany’s outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel was once known as “Klimakanzlerin” (Climate Chancellor) for setting the topic on the agenda already in 2006. As a former minister of the Environment she also started Germany’s “Energiewende” (transition of energy) which included abandoning nuclear energy and investing heavily in renewable energy. Therefore Germany could be perceived as a role model in the fight against climate change.
But despite its own high targets, the anger of the youth is justified. Germany is still the world’s sixth biggest emitter of carbon carbon dioxide and will fall short of its own targets for 2020. While the share of renewable energy sources in the energy production is still increasing, coal remains the most important source of energy. Also the share of natural gas in energy production is rapidly rising. The government had to admit already in February that carbon dioxide emission will only be down by 32 percent instead of the aimed 40 percent compared with the level of 1990.
To address the problem the cabinet agreed after a night session on the “Klimapaket” (Climate package). It postponed the deadline for reaching a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, which was originally 2020, to 2030. In order to reach the target this time, the government proposed a bundle of measures. The core will be a price on carbon dioxide. The initial price shall be 10€ per tonne – which would increase the cost of a liter of fuel by 3 cents – and will rise to 35€ per tonne by 2025. Afterwards the price will be transferred in a market for emission certificates with a price ranging in a corridor between 35€ and 60€ per tonne. This will be accompanied with subsidies for investors increasing energy efficiency. At the same time there will be tax cuts benefitting commuters and less well-off households.
Not long after, the announcement was object of much criticism not only from the opposition but also from many scientists. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which also prepared a study for the government on which the new policies should be based, stated that the package would not be sufficient to reach the climate targets. Especially the price for carbon dioxide is much too low to have an incentive effect. They demand instead a starting price of 50€ per tonne and a minimum price of 130€ per tonne by 2030. The “Fridays for Future” movement condemned the package as not sufficient. Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, an environmentalist opposition party announced that it will try to increase the carbon dioxide price with an amendment in the Bundesrat (“Federal Council”).
The government itself is split, too. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is suspicious about too much action as it fears it could hurt the economy. It is also worried that bans and increasing consumer prices would mean that a lot of voters would instead support the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which questions the existence of human-made climate change, or could even spark a protest movement like the Gilets jaunes in France. The Social Democrats (SPD) are generally open to climate protection, but have to please their voter base in the coal-mining regions. These strains further an already difficult coalition, which could break up in December when the SPD’s party conference will review the prospects of the work and decide about staying in the coalition or leaving it.
So despite a partly committed civil society and a government acknowledging the need for climate protection, Germany seems to fail to deliver their contribution in the fight against climate change. Seeing even a world leader in climate change like Germany missing targets and dismissing scientific advice could further discourage other countries contributing to climate protection and give excuses to deniers. Regarding such an urgent question, which requires global action, this is an alarming prospect.
Cover photo: campact
Jonas Reichert is an exchange student from Heidelberg in the south of Germany, where he does a degree in Physics. Besides his interests in life outside Earth, he can be found on most times in debating tournaments. In Sweden he tries to figure out how to bake and how to survive the winter.