After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany

Finally, some good environmental news from Germany, whose status as environmental leader has dwindled in recent years from its peak in the 90s and 00s when it made great strides in areas such as renewable energy, green roofs and recycling. Since that time, the country has been “jeopardizing its reputation as a global leader” and “spectacularly missing its 2020 climate target” as the state news network put it – so imagine what others are saying. However, there is at least one large sign of improvement. Last week the environment minister introduced a strong and decisive climate action bill which is the country’s first-ever specific legislation for greenhouse gas reductions with quantitative targets and penalties for noncompliance.

This will come as a surprise to those who associate Angela Merkel with climate action and the Paris agreement. In fact, action to follow through on the energy transition that began in 90s has been lacking for some time, and lately the government has hardly even bothered with the rhetoric and in some cases taken major steps backwards. These include doing essentially nothing about the automaker diesel scandal; federal efforts to make it illegal for municipalities to ban old, polluting diesels from city centers or even just a street or two; and opening new coal mines that would require demolishing villages and old-growth forest. (After immense protests and sit-ins that convulsed the country and led to one death, the clearcutting was put on hold, but the villages are on track to be razed, to my knowledge).

If enacted, the new legislation would go along way to reversing the trend, doing what every country needs to do to attenuate the coming climate catastrophe, and restoring Germany’s climate leadership by example.

The core of the bill is reductions in carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, namely:

•    40 percent reduction by 2020, compared to 1990, which is the standard baseline for carbon reduction planning; 55 percent by 2030; 70 percent by 2040. These are the already existing government goals which are so far not enshrined in law.
•    Proposal to pin down the 2050 target to 95 percent – so far, Germany’s official target is 80-95 percent
•    Goal of net greenhouse-gas neutrality by mid-century. “Neutrality” means the remaining greenhouse gas emissions would be offset by paying for activities in other countries that absorb or reduce emissions, or by sucking them out of the air, although the technology for that is so far off that it only can be said to exist “in the sense that flying cars exist”, as the New Yorker put it.

The reductions will be divided among economic sectors such as energy, industry, buildings, transport and agriculture. If a sector misses its target, the difference is to be spread over the years remaining until the next target year (2030, 2040, 2050). If the country as whole misses its target, it must buy emissions allocations from other countries, to be paid out of the budget of the ministries responsible for the gap.

This practice of emissions trading, however, is mired in controversy because so far its implementation has often failed to lead to actual emissions reductions. On the other hand, there has to be some sort of penalty for sectors that fail to meet their targets, and it’s not clear that there’s any better use for the fines.

The environment minister is in the center-left Social Democrat party, and the draft quickly provoked intense resistance from Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrat (CDU) party, its partner in the coalition that forms the majority in Parliament under a contract that sets out their broad goals. Some CDU politicians lambasted the plan as communism (Planwirtschaft, literally, planned economy, but it has the effect of saying “communism” in English because in German it’s directly linked with communist East Germany.)

The German public is by and large in favor of climate action, and to their credit, Germans tend to be cautious and prudently plan for the future. The caution cuts both ways, though: the country has a devotion to diesel engines that can only be described as maniacal when you consider that the engineering community and more or less all other countries long ago concluded they are worse for the environment than gas engines, and that it could be too late for Germany’s industry to ever catch up to other countries’ prospective future dominance in electric cars. It’s not by accident that Germany first introduced hybrids a full ten years after Toyota did.

And cars in general are to the majority of Germans what guns are to the U.S., a untouchable embodiment of masculinity and personal freedom, and the slightest efforts to alter or limit them are career suicide for politicians in the major parties. (The comparison is weak, though, because where the German car frenzy is the majority view, polls show that only a small minority of Americans oppose gun control, which means the lack of action is not due to popular opinion but due to systemic flaws in 100- to 150-year-old campaign finance and election laws, if not in the Constitution itself, that block the will of the majority.) Witness the hysteria and near-rioting this month that instantly shut down discussion of a proposal – not from major-party politicians, of course, but from a think thank – for speed limits on the limit-free Autobahn highways, which would save lives and reduce air pollution (which itself would save even more lives), with near-zero cost.

This means the concern about the climate is offset by hesitation to switch to electric cars, along with some masculine-overcompensation issues that you will need to check with a psychologist about because it’s not my area. The carbon reductions bill is just a bill for now, and will doubtless be altered before it passes. It remains to be seen whether Germany will take the drastic and bold steps that are paradoxically essential in order to remain prudent.


(The summary of the bill’s provisions has been adapted from here.)

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