12 Aug 2020, 14:15

Germany's Climate Action Law

Germany's first major national climate law has entered into force on 18 December 2019, three months after the coalition of chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) agreed to introduce it as part of an extensive climate package to reach 2030 climate targets. The package forms the bedrock of the country's long-term climate policy. This factsheet provides details of Germany's framework Climate Action Law. [UPDATE adds members of expert council]

Overview of the current status

In their 2018 coalition treaty, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democrats (SPD) promised to introduce “a law that guarantees compliance with the climate targets for 2030”.

The government decided that this would not be a single law. Instead, it is working out a comprehensive climate package.

After overnight coalition negotiations, the parties presented a 23-page-document with the key elements of this package on 20 September and is now working out the details.

The government decided the package would consist of:

(A) a major framework “Climate Action Law” and

(B) a policy programme of measures, called “Climate Action Programme 2030”.

The document from 20 September contains information on both, and the term “climate action law” often refers to the whole package. This factsheet looks at (A), the Climate Action Law in the narrower sense.

The (B) Programme 2030 contains climate action measures for all sectors – such as the coal exit, renewables expansion and support for e-mobility – and cross-sector policies such as a pricing system for carbon emissions in transport and buildings. Implementing the programme entails a myriad of changes to existing climate and energy-related laws and regulations.

The cabinet adopted both in a meeting on 9 October.

The federal parliament (Bundestag) decided the law with minor changes on 15 November. The Bundesrat, the council of state governments, greenlit the law on 29 November, clearing the last hurdle.

The climate law entered into force on 18 December 2019.

Find the German text of the law here.

Find the English text here.

Germany’s first-ever major climate law

There has been no federal German climate law, like the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act - one of the world’s earliest comprehensive framework laws on climate change - yet. Instead, Germany’s climate action policies are embedded in a multitude of national laws, government programmes, EU regulations and international agreements. Several German states have their own climate action laws.

Germany’s national climate targets were set down in a government policy programmes in 2007 and 2010 and have been upheld by every government since. They were reinforced with Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, the country’s long term climate action strategy.

German environment minister Svenja Schulze aimed to make these climate targets legally binding – also for future governments – and better translate EU goals into national regulation. She presented the first draft of a German climate action law in February 2019. It was, however, heavily criticised by many in the coalition, and for some time there were doubts Germany would get a major framework climate law. Instead, critics within the government called for only a policy programme with climate action measures for each sector.

After months of internal negotiations, the government in October presented a draft.

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

What does it look like?

The Bundestag (federal parliament) decided the climate law on 15 November, with minor changes compared to the government's draft. The Bundesrat gave the green light on 29 November. The law entered into force on 18 December. Find the text here


General purpose of the law

  • Guarantee Germany fulfils national and European climate targets “to safeguard against the effects of global climate change”

  • Law “rests upon” Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to well below 2°C and possibly to 1.5°C, plus the commitment Germany made at the UN climate action summit in New York on 23 September 2019 to “pursue” the long-term target of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050

Enshrining Germany’s national greenhouse gas reduction targets in law

  • At least 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 [already existing government goal, so far not enshrined in law]

  • Ambition of national targets can be raised, should this be necessary to meet European or international obligations - but not lowered

Graph shows German greenhouse gas emissions 1990-2019 and targets for 2030 and 2050. Graph: CLEW 2020.

Sectoral emissions reduction targets

  • Divvies up Germany’s climate target between economic sectors (energy, buildings, transport, industry, agriculture, waste and other), as in Climate Action Plan 2050

  • Breaks up sectoral targets into annual emissions budgets [linear reduction, except for energy sector – here “ideally constant” reduction]

  • In case of target miss or overshot, difference will be “evenly spread over the remaining annual emissions budgets of the sector” until 2030

  • Federal government may change annual budgets, as long as this still guarantees reaching climate targets

  • in 2025, German govt will decide annual emissions budgets for 2031 and following years (parl. consent necessary)
Sector targets in the German Climate Action Law.
Sector targets in the German Climate Action Law.

Responsibility for sector targets with federal ministries

  • Ministry most responsible for sector also responsible for reaching sector target

  • Ministries must introduce and implement necessary measures to achieve greenhouse gas reductions in their respective sectors

What happens in case of target miss?

  • If Germany misses annual emissions reduction target under the EU Effort Sharing Regulation (all non-ETS sectors combined), federal government must buy emissions allocations from other countries (selling state must guarantee to use revenues for climate action)

  • Responsible ministry must present emergency programme of measures to reach future targets

  • Government then decides programme of measures(either in sector, or cross-sector + possibility to change sector budgets)


  • Government publishes annual climate action report (with emissions data, status of implementation of climate action measures, and effectiveness)

  • Government publishes emissions projections report every two years from 2021

Independent “Council of Experts on Climate Change”

  • Independent five-person expert council for climate issues will be set up by federal government (experts for climate science, environment, social issues, economy)

  • Commission examines and evaluates emissions data

  • Assesses greenhouse gas reduction effect of proposed emergency programme measures

  • Gives opinion on changing annual emissions budgets, climate action programmes

  • government or Bundestag can charge the council with writing special reports
  • The five members are
    Marc Oliver Bettzüge, professor of economics at the University of Cologne and managing director of Institute of Energy Economics (EWI),
    Thomas Heimer, professor for Innovation Management and Project Management at the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences,
    Hans-Martin Henning, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE),
    Brigitte Knopf, Secretary General at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) and
    Barbara Schlomann, Head of the Energy Policy Division in the Energy Policy and Energy Markets Competence Centre at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI).

Other key parts of the law

  • State institutions must take Climate Action Law into account for all decisions and plans

  • Federal administration aims to become climate-neutral by 2030

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 thus aimed 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 emissions by 43 percent over 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 from 2021 to 2030. In years in which emissions are lower than the allocation, countries can bank surpluses and use them later. 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 divvys 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. The government now does this, and makes it legally binding. “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,” Schulze had told Tagesspiegel Background.

When Schulze presented her draft to the chancellery for early coordination in mid-February 2019, the Social Democratic minister’s submission was accompanied by fierce criticism from conservative lawmakers. Some politicians from Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance opposed the idea of a single big framework law. They did not support Schulze’s idea to make ministries financially responsible for reaching climate targets in their relevant economic sectors, and would have preferred to focus on the political programme of measures by introducing several ‘climate measure laws’ instead.

To overcome the climate action impasse, Merkel had set up the so-called climate cabinet, a round of ministers with responsibilities relating to climate issues, such as the environment, transport, buildings and energy ministers. They were tasked with deciding the “legally binding implementation” of Germany’s climate targets for 2030 before the end of 2019. The climate cabinet presented key points of a comprehensive climate package on 20 September, and a detailed Climate Action Programme 2030 and the Climate Action Law on 9 October.

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 a law that includes 2020 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets, in order 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 climate action legislation 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 targets for 2030. We will adopt a legally binding implementation in 2019,” the coalition agreement says.

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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