17 Jan 2019, 11:04

Germany's Climate Action Law begins to take shape

Germany faces many months of heated political debate over its new Climate Action Law. Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government has promised to ensure the country reaches its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets by enshrining them in law. While some parts of the law will be used to transfer already binding EU climate targets into German legislation and other areas are already laid out by the government's Climate Action Plan 2050, many details of the legislation are still to be decided. The timeline for some aspects of this package of legislation has already been pushed back, but the environment ministry says parliament should agree on the law before this year is out.

Germany’s climate protection policies are embedded in a multitude of different national laws and decisions, EU regulations and international agreements. Several German states have their own climate action laws. However, until now the country has not enacted a primary federal climate law, as the UK did with its 2008 Climate Change Act, one of the world’s earliest comprehensive framework laws on climate change.

Germany’s national climate targets were set down in 2007 and have been upheld by every government since. To make these climate targets binding, and translate EU goals into national regulation, the German government is now working on its own climate action law.

The detailed content and concrete design of a German climate action law and its accompanying measures and regulations have yet to be decided and will include reforms that are likely going be subject to controversy and debate, among ministries and in federal parliament, throughout 2019.

Like its British counterpart, the law will regulate greenhouse gas reduction targets and is likely to set up an independent scientific monitoring group.

German environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) has said the law will be a “milestone of German climate policy”, and will “surely be one of the biggest tasks of this legislative period.”

Overview of which countries have implemented climate action laws. Source: Ecologic, 2018.
Overview of which countries have implemented climate action laws. Source: Ecologic, 2018.

How has the Climate Action Law become a priority?

Environmental NGOs, including Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and WWF, have been calling for a climate action law for years, and research institute Ecologic prepared a legal opinion on how to adopt the British model into German law in 2009. From that point on, the Greens, Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left Party have all pushed for the introduction of a federal climate action law.

The SPD, then in the opposition, organised a conference and published a position paper on the topic in 2010, calling for 2020 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets to be enshrined in law to create investment and planning security. During  a parliamentary debate in 2010, politicians from the SPD, Greens and Left Party criticised that Germany’s climate targets had so far been only “non-binding political guidelines” from government, which needed to be made legally binding.

In its 2013 election campaign programme, the SPD again called for the law. However, during coalition talks with the CDU and CSU, negotiators agreed to introduce the government’s Climate Action Plan 2050 – a cabinet decision that is not legally binding but sets out targets and policies for subsequent governments – instead of a law.

The current government finally committed to introducing a climate action law in its coalition agreement of March 2018. The CDU/CSU and SPD renewed their grand coalition and put a clear emphasis on reaching 2030 climate targets. To this end, the government has set up the coal exit commission and similar multi-stakeholder bodies for transport and buildings to propose concrete measures to reach sector-specific goals.

“On this basis, we want to pass a law that guarantees compliance with the climate protection targets for 2030. We will adopt a legally binding implementation in 2019,” the coalition agreement says.

Photo shows Germany's government cabinet in 2018. Photo: BMU 2018.
With the 2018 coalition treaty, Angela Merkel's government promised to introduce a climate action law. Photo: BMU 2018.

Why introduce a federal climate action law?

Environment  minister Schulze has said Germany’s climate action needs to become “more binding, so that we actually implement what we have committed to internationally.” The minister wants to draft the law in such a way “that we can reach our targets in a plannable, reliable and fair manner.”

The EU’s 2030 climate targets are already legally binding for Germany. For sectors included in the European Union's emissions trading system (EU ETS) – power production, energy-intensive industry and civil aviation – there is a combined EU target to cut greenhouse gas emission by 43 percent, compared to 2005. For non-ETS sectors, such as transport, buildings and agriculture, each country was assigned its own target. Germany must reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all non-ETS sectors combined by 38 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

The EU Effort Sharing Regulation translates this commitment into binding annual greenhouse gas emission reductions for each EU member state for the period from 2021 to 2030. In years where emissions are lower than the allocation, countries can bank surpluses and use them in later years. In years where emissions are above the annual limit, states can borrow a limited number of allocations from the following year, or buy allowances from other countries. This makes climate action relevant to national budgets, and potentially expensive for countries that widely miss their targets.

The Climate Action Law is to divvy up Germany’s annual targets and CO2 budgets between economic sectors. In 2016, the government’s Climate Action Plan 2050 set targets for each economic sector to achieve by 2030, but did not break them down into annual budgets. Schulze now wants to do this, and enshrine these steps in law. “Falling annually, the total amount of CO₂ emissions still permissible will be clearly regulated by the [climate action] law, and distributed across the transport, industry, energy, buildings and agriculture sectors,” she told Tagesspiegel Background.

Thus far, climate action has often been seen as the sole responsibility of the environment ministry. The new law will create a “binding timetable which obligates government as a whole,” Schulze said during a keynote speech about her priorities as minister. “I will make sure that no minister can continue to shirk responsibility and delegate climate action to others.”

What will it look like?

When there is talk about the Climate Action Law, this isn't always referring to a single law. The climate action law package is expected to consist of three elements, Karsten Sach, director general in the German environment ministry (BMU) said at a conference in Berlin:

1) A framework climate action law for the 2030 targets

2) A policy programme of measures by which each ministry in charge of one of the climate action sectors is to reach these targets

3) One or more legislative acts that amend existing legislation in line with the proposed measures in affected areas of policy

1)  Climate Action Law

  • Will include the following key elements:

a) Enshrining existing 2030 targets from EU regulation into German law

b) Sectoral climate targets, taken from Climate Action Plan 2050

c) Monitoring process

d) A new climate council expert group (similar to British Committee on Climate Change)

  • Is similar to UK Climate Change Act

  • Divides sector targets into “annual slices”, i.e. gives each sector a (declining) CO2 budget per year

  • Outlines consequences if sector is not on target; Environment minister Schulze: “Any ministry that does not comply with the obligations in its area will have to answer for the financial consequences”

  • First draft is the responsibility of environment ministry, which will then be debated by government

2) Programme of measures to reach 2030 targets

  • Catalogue of measures to reach 2030 targets in each sector, as set out in Climate Action Plan 2050

  • Will be a cabinet decision

  • Each ministry presents measures, environment ministry then examines and assembles catalogue. Schulze: “I very much hope that the measures presented by my colleagues will be sufficient. I will not accept inadequate measures that clearly lead to a target being missed”

  • Ministries will take into account outcome of multi-stakeholder task forces on the coal exit, transport and buildings for their measures

3) Amendments to existing legislation

  • One or several acts which amend affected existing legislation affected by Climate Change Act and/or programme of measures.

  • Likely to be drafted by the relevant ministries

  • Could take throughout the second half of 2019 and longer to make all these changes

What else will the law include – or omit?

Earlier proposals by the SPD, as well as other parties and NGOs, included a greenhouse gas reduction goal for 2050 in the Climate Action Law. The law now being planned could thus be used to pin down Germany’s mid-century goal. Currently, the country aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 which is too great a range to pinpoint sector targets on. Another way of phrasing it could be "becoming largely greenhouse-gas neutral by mid-century". Chancellor Merkel has said Germany must decide on this “at the start of the next legislative period”. A discussion on the 2050 target is sure to generate heated debate within the government coalition and in parliament.  

The Greens have called for the law to include some form of national CO₂ pricing reform in the climate action law package. While Schulze has repeatedly called for a discussion on this, the CDU minister in charge of energy policy, Peter Altmaier, has said a CO₂ price is not part of the coalition agreement of 2018. Politicians still shy away from introducing what tabloids have already dubbed “yet another tax blow” for fear of angering voters, and protests against fuel prices in France have reinforced this concern. Whether the topic will make it onto the official government agenda and into Germany’s climate action plans also depends on the recommendations by Germany’s multi-stakeholder coal exit commission, which could include advice on CO2 pricing in its final report in February 2019.

Campaigners such as Campact demand that Germany’s obligation to reach its climate targets be actionable before the courts and see the planned law as an ideal way to establish this. However, Brigitte Knopf, secretary general of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), said it is “hard to imagine” government would introduce a law which enables citizens to sue the German government over climate targets.

When will the law be enacted?

The CDU/CSU and SPD coalition agreement says the government intends to pass the law in 2019. As the package will include several elements, milestones for each could be different.

Regarding the framework Climate Action Law, the environment ministry had planned to prepare a first draft by the beginning of 2019. This would then be subject to cross-ministry coordination and a final draft decided by cabinet by Easter. However, the ministry has yet to present a draft. It says it will do so “this winter” – and politicians expect heated debate over contentious points, while observers doubt the government coalition still has the strength to stick to the planned schedule. Schulze has said she wants the law to be sent to parliament by mid-2019.

“It has to be set in motion before the summer recess,” Schulze said. “I cannot imagine this federal government could afford not to. That is beyond my imagination,” she told Clean Energy Wire. Once in parliament, the law is subject to the usual legislative process, which includes several readings in plenary and might call for expert hearings in committee.

The programme of measures to reach 2030 targets has already been delayed by Germany’s coal exit commission as well as unexpectedly slow progress by the government task forces on mobility and buildings. Originally, relevant ministries were supposed to deliver proposals for their individual sectors by the end of 2018, but they want to take the results of the task forces into account. This could push back the timetable. The coal commission is due to complete its work by February, the transport task force by March. Following that, the environment ministry needs time to examine the proposals to see if they are sufficient for the sectors to reach their climate targets.

The act to amend existing affected legislation will follow last. This process could drag into 2020.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.


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