Germany after the climate change conference
Pressure on the pioneer
The global community set itself ambitious targets in Paris. Considerable efforts will also be needed in Germany if they are to be reached.
The global community made history at the Paris climate change conference in late 2015, all the world’s countries committing themselves for the first time to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, they included an unexpectedly ambitious main target in their agreement: to halt global warming at “well below two degrees”. Temperatures are already around one degree higher than in the preindustrial era. Furthermore, the parties are to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”.
This additional goal is the tricky part, as the 1.5 degree cap means nearly halving the volume of greenhouse gases that can still be released into the atmosphere worldwide as compared with the previous two-degree target. Aiming for 1.5 degrees will mean bringing forward planned efforts – even in Germany, a pioneer in the field of renewable energies. Action will also need to be taken worldwide to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example through largescale reforestation and carbon sequestration in carbon sinks deep underground.
Plans so far are “not sufficient”The “efforts to be pursued” are considerable, in other words. This is also reflected in the national carbon dioxide targets submitted by the 195 participating countries in Paris. So far, these will only be sufficient to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees, and will therefore be revisited and enhanced at five-year intervals once the Paris Agreement comes into force. Germany is one of the most ambitious countries in this respect, as its plans are already compatible with the two-degree target. Germany’s federal government and the Bundestag (the country’s parliament) decided back in 2007 to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and by 80 to 95 percent by the middle of the century, in both cases as compared with 1990 levels.
From a scientific viewpoint it is quite clear that even tougher requirements will be needed, in Germany too, if the Paris Agreement is to be achieved. “A reduction of 80 to 95 percent by 2050 would certainly not be sufficient to reach the 1.5 degree target”, says the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, for instance. Berlin-based think-tank “Agora Energiewende” calculates that the last coal-fired power plant in Germany would already need to be shut down in 2035 rather than in 2040.
Even the two-degree scenario is ambitious. At the end of 2014, the German government adopted a “Climate Action Programme” containing numerous individual points aimed at ensuring that the carbon target for 2020 is met. This is because the reductions achieved in the previous years fell short of the targets, with a rise in emissions actually recorded in some cases. By the end of 2015, carbon emissions were down 28 percent on their 1990 level, and now have to be lowered by an additional three percentage points per year until 2020. Reduction targets have been set for all sectors – from electricity production to industry and transport – and are to be revised and adjusted on an annual basis. Furthermore, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety is drawing up a “Climate Action Plan 2050” which will describe the pathway that will see coal use largely phased out by the middle of the century and which is to be adopted in the summer of 2016.
Arguing over coal policyEver since the climate change conference, there has been heated debate in Germany about how to accelerate the pace at which coal use is phased out. Key parameters concern the speed at which renewable energies are developed and coal is phased out, increased energy efficiency, promotion of electric mobility and a transport revolution which will encourage people to switch from cars to buses, trains and bikes. The Federation of German Industries (BDI) warned against overly ambitious climate policy targets. As BDI President Ulrich Grillo explained, it is not the right time to think about new EU and national targets. Germany should “not change from a pioneer into a hermit” in the area of climate change policy. By contrast, environmental associations, business initiatives and the opposition parties in the Bundestag are demanding more ambitious goals.
Coal policy in particular is controversial. The environment ministry believes that coal use could be phased out in a socially acceptable manner within 20 to 25 years, while the economics and energy ministry is pushing for longer deadlines, as are politicians from the CDU and CSU parties. Annalena Baerbock, a climate expert in the Greens party, claims on the other hand: “Anyone who signs up to limiting global warming to well below two degrees, as the German government did in Paris, must logically phase out coal.” Michael Vassiliadis, director of the mining and chemicals union IGBCE, calls it “absurd to start one exit discussion after another in Germany”. Instead, he recommends investing more money in developing countries in order to reduce carbon dioxide. “Every cent of such investment would be more wisely spent and would eliminate more tons of carbon dioxide from the world than setting new decimal-place reduction targets in Europe.”