Germany becomes zero point for the challenges of deep decarbonization
Global climate policy in 2021 aims to generate more ambitious climate commitments from member countries of the Paris Agreement before the meeting of the Conference of the Parties in November. With the addition of the United States, about two-thirds of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from countries that have committed to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century. These countries must now adopt policies to achieve these emission reductions; a complete overhaul of the global energy system in just three decades. With a recent court ruling, Germany has become the starting point for this challenge, as German law will now demand an extremely ambitious program of change.
Climate as an issue of intergenerational equity
For most of history, successive generations have been better off than those that came before them. The advancement of technology has brought benefits to mankind, giving people more choices in goods, amenities, and options for living and working.
But climate change threatens to change that. Earth’s climate is changing faster than ever in human history, and we may soon be living in a very different environment. Some of the strongest voices in the current climate movement come from young people, who say climate change is robbing them of their future.
For years, governments have tended to ‘kick’ climate policy, delaying action as the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere continues to rise. The climate is exactly the kind of problem humans struggle to solve – a tragedy of the commons that pits future generations against the present and the developing countries against the rich world. Nonetheless, the costs of inaction are becoming clearer and, in recent years, many countries have become more serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Historic decision of the German High Court
Against this background, on April 29, 2021, the German Federal Constitutional Court made history, ruling that German climate action law does not sufficiently protect the freedoms of young people and future generations. The 2019 law required Germany to reduce its GHG emissions by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. It also sets annual limits on emissions from sectors such as energy, transport , buildings and agriculture.
The court’s decision is based on a 1994 amendment to Article 20 of the German Basic Law, which added environmental protection to the basic principles of the constitutional order (democracy, federalism, rule of law, etc. ). its responsibility to future generations, the state must protect the natural basis of life through legislation… ”German constitutional lawyer Christian Calliess commented that the court ruling had“ awakened ”Article 20 and made it a benchmark for judging the sufficiency of legislative action. The court argued: “A generation should not be allowed to consume large portions of CO2 budget while supporting a relatively minor part of the reduction effort if that meant leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and exposing their lives to complete loss of freedom. Essentially, the decision is based on the carbon emissions budget theory, which states that spending too much of the budget now will leave an insufficient budget for the future, causing undue hardship.
The decision opens new ground for intergenerational equity in climate law. This finding goes further than a case decided in the Netherlands at the end of 2019, which was the first to order a state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, on the grounds that inadequate action on climate change can violate human rights. However, this case did not involve goals after 2020 and did not focus on the issue of intergenerational equity. Likewise, current climate court cases in the United States focus on companies that produce fossil fuels rather than on the government’s response to the climate challenge.
Merkel government responds with ambitious commitment
German politicians are now playing a blame game. The different parties blame each other that the 2019 law did not go further, in a country that cares deeply about the climate with federal elections coming at the end of September. However, there is a revisionist story here. The law was a delicate compromise reached after months of debates that divided the ruling Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU / CSU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) coalition. The environment minister, a member of the SPD, lobbied for a strict law with sector-specific emission reductions. Members of the more conservative CDU / CSU complained during negotiations that the sectoral arrangements were aimed at harming industries controlled by ministries under their party control. The opposition leader of the Green Party in parliament complained that the law went no further, saying, “You have failed in humanity’s task of protecting the climate.” Always pragmatic, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Politics is what is possible.”
Just two weeks after the decision, Merkel’s government approved an update to the climate action law that targets a 65% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions from by 2045, five years earlier than the previous target. If approved by parliament they would be among the most ambitious targets in the world, with only the UK aiming for deeper cuts – 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035, on track to zero net by 2050.
There may be no example of a government legally bound to do a more difficult task. Americans like to compare the reduction in GHG emissions to landing on the moon. President John F. Kennedy announced in September 1962 that the United States would put a man on the moon within a decade and this goal was achieved in July 1969. However, the task Germany undertakes is much more difficult, involving a change of basis. of the entire German economy in a decade rather than a Herculean effort by a group of engineers. In addition, the moonshot goal was not legally binding.
A victory for climate action, but the devil is in the details
Lofty goals are one thing, but achieving those goals is quite another. Germany has a long history of investing in renewable energies as part of its “Energiewende“Literally meaning“ energy transition or recovery ”. However, the Energiewende also includes a gradual phase-out of German nuclear power, with the last nuclear power plants due to close at the end of 2022. The German public is also opposed to carbon capture and storage. Both of these technologies are expected to play an important role in America’s decarbonization efforts, but they are largely irrelevant in Germany. In conversations over the past few months, government, industry and NGO representatives have focused on renewable energy and green hydrogen (produced from renewable energy) as the way forward. These are great technologies, but the timeframe for large-scale implementation is longer than the court ruling and the updated climate action law allow, especially in the major German industries of the steel, chemicals and transport.
What if Germany misses its targets? In this case, the federal government must buy emission rights from other countries, the responsible ministry must establish an emergency program to meet future targets, and the government will then establish corrective measures. The corrective measures needed to achieve such ambitious targets could be very tough. Will German politicians be able to implement them? Will the German public accept them? European governments generally have more ambitious climate policies than those of the United States, but we have seen negative reactions when they affect the daily lives of citizens – the yellow vests protests that erupted in France in late 2018 after an increase in the fuel tax is a good example. Policies to meet Germany’s climate goals are likely to test the resolve of German society.
The climate decision could affect other equity issues as well. A rapid transition to a zero carbon economy will require significant investments in buildings, transport infrastructure and industrial processes. Government support will be needed for some of these processes. For example, the German steel industry intends to switch to the use of hydrogen in its process. This change will be costly and will require government support for capital and operating expenses, even if today’s steel production faces a European carbon price of over € 50 per tonne. Large public spending will require debt financing, which also has implications for future generations. Germany has a “debt brake” in its Constitution which caps federal government borrowing at 0.35% of GDP. The debt brake can be suspended in times of crisis, but will investing in decarbonization be considered a crisis? Or will the concept of intergenerational fairness in the recent court ruling run counter to such investments, as it will leave future generations grappling with more debt? There are no easy answers to these questions.
Scientists and activists pushing for very rapid emission reductions are realizing the difficulty of this task, especially once emissions reductions are made easier in the electric transport sector and lightweight are carried out. The climate decision makes Germany a key test of the transition, with very rapid cuts now enshrined in law. Good luck and good luck.