21 Mar 2019, 10:30

Germany's Climate Action Law begins to take shape

Germany's environment ministry wants to enshrine a target of "at least 95 percent" greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 in the new Climate Action Law. A first draft of the law, seen by Clean Energy Wire, was sent to the chancellery for early coordination in February 2019. Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government has promised to ensure the country reaches its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets by making them part of the law. While some parts of the law will be used to transfer already binding EU climate targets into German legislation, many details of the legislation are still subject to changes in the legislative process. The legislation timeline has already been partly pushed back, but the environment ministry says parliament should agree on the law before year-end. [Updates sector targets graph with 2017 status.]

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.

The process overcame a first hurdle when environment minister Svenja Schulze presented a first 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. [For details on the draft, see below “What will it look like”]

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

Schulze 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.

Table shows German greenhouse gas emission reduction sector targets for 2030, and 2017 status. Data source: BMU 2016, UBA 2019.

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

2) A programme of measures to help ministries reach the targets for their respective sectors

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

1)  Climate Action Law - details from a first draft

Environment minister Schulze submitted a first draft to Chancellor Angela Merkel in mid-February 2019.

Purpose of the law

  • Guarantee that Germany fulfils its national and the European climate targets “to safeguard against the effects of global climate change”
  • It is based on the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to well below 2°C and possibly to 1.5°C
  • Reach net-greenhouse gas neutrality by mid-century

Enshrining Germany’s national greenhouse gas reduction targets into law

  • At least 40 percent reduction by 2020, compared to 1990; 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 2050 target to 95 percent – so far, Germany’s official target is 80-95 percent
  • Goal of net-greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050

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)
  • Should targets be missed or overshot, the difference will be “evenly spread over the remaining annual emissions budgets of the sector” until the next climate target year (2030, 2040, 2050)
  • The federal government may change these annual budgets, as long as this still guarantees reaching the 2030/2040/2050 targets

Responsibility for sector targets with federal ministries

  • The ministry most responsible for the sector is also responsible for reaching the sector target
  • The ministries must introduce the necessary measures to achieve greenhouse gas reductions in their respective sectors
  • If Germany misses its annual emissions reduction target (all non-ETS sectors combined) under the EU effort sharing regulation, the federal government must bear the costs for buying emissions allocations from other countries – these costs will be covered by the budgets of the responsible ministries, according to the degree of non-compliance

Programme of measures to reach climate targets

Emergency programme in case of target miss

  • In case of a target miss, government must introduce an emergency programme within 6 months of the publishing of emissions data to ensure that targets are reached in the following years


  • Government will publish an annual climate action report, which presents emissions data, status of implementation of climate action measures, and their effectiveness

Independent expert body for climate issues

  • An independent 7-person expert body for climate issues will be set up by the federal parliament, made up of experts for environment, sustainable development, consumer issues and economic development, among others
  • The body examines existing and planned climate action measures regarding their effectiveness
  • Publishes annual main report by the end of the year, in which it evaluates the climate action report and makes recommendations
  • Can address other climate policy issues, and evaluate federal legislation regarding its effects on climate change

Other key parts of the law

  • State institutions must take Climate Action Law into account for all their decisions and plans
  • Federal administration aims to become climate-neutral by 2030
  • Federal institutions must explain how their capital investments take into account climate targets, and resulting risks from climate change.

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 draft now submitted by Schulze pins down Germany’s mid-century goal to at least 95 percent. 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.

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. With the draft presented in February 2019, this process is now underway. However, conservative politicians from CDU/CSU have voiced heavy criticism over aspects of the draft while observers have doubted 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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