17 Mar 2016 | Kerstine Appunn

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate targets

This factsheet gives an overview of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and the government's CO2-reduction targets.

National climate targets

Germany aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and up to 95 percent in 2050. The share of renewables in final energy consumption is to rise to 60 percent (from 12.6 percent in 2015) by 2050. Renewables shall make up a minimum of 80 percent of the countries gross power consumption by the middle of the century.

Germany's climate targets were put on paper in 2007 and have been held up by all governments since. They were confirmed in the 2014 progress report and are subject to an annual monitoring process. The latest monitoring report was published in November 2015.

Ahead of the UN climate summit in Paris 2015, many countries have published similiar climate action targets (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions - INDCs, see an overview here). Germany's greenhouse gas reduction goal is more ambitious than that of the European Union who wants to achieve a 20 percent cut by 2020 and a 40 percent cut by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

German renewables and greenhouse gas emissions

In 2015, the share of renewable sources in German domestic power consumption amounted to an all-time high of 32.5 percent (27.4 percent in 2014) according to the AG Energiebilanzen. Renewables accounted for 30 percent of gross electricity production in 2015.

To put this into context: in the UK renewables accounted for 16.1 percent of power production, compared to 13.7 percent in the United States, 17.5 percent in France and 53.2 percent in Sweden (2013 figures). 

In 2015 Germany had a 12.6 percent share of renewables in gross final energy consumption (For a comparison of the 28 EU countries in 2013 see Figure 1).

While this puts Germany ahead of many other industrialised nations (note that the share of hydropower in the German energy mix is comparatively low, with most renewable power coming from wind, solar and biomass), Germany has been struggling to keep its greenhouse gas emissions in check.

In 2007, the German government set greenhouse gas reduction targets of 40 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recommendation for industrialised nations outlined in its Fourth Assessment Report. Germany by 2014 achieved a reduction of 346 million tonnes CO2 eq. or 27.7 percent on 1990 emission levels. By 2008, along with the other 14 EU member states at the time, it had more than fulfilled its greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. However, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) who collects Germany's official emissions data, estimated in March 2016 that emissions increased again by 6 million tonnes or 0.7 percent in 2015, to 908 million tonnes. Researchers from Green Budget Germany had even estimated an increase by 10 million tonnes.

Between 1990 and 2015, most major German sources of emissions achieved reductions (See Figure 2). In the energy related sectors, which are responsible for the largest share of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions (around 40 percent), emissions fell by almost 20 percent between 1990 and 2015. Even bigger reductions were achieved by households (32.5 percent) and industry (36 percent), while emissions from agriculture only fell by 14 percent and the transport sector only reduced its emissions by 0.5 percent. Emissions from waste fell by 72 percent (all according to preliminary 2015 figures).

After two consecutive rises in emissions in 2012 and 2013, there was a 4.6 percent drop in GHG output in 2014 compared to the previous year. Experts interpreted this drop in emissions in 2014 as a sign that the country was back on track, but critics pointed out that a significant part of the 2014 CO2 savings can be attributed to warm winter weather. After the most recent increase however, in order to achieve the 2020 reduction target of 40 percent, 2015 emissions have to be reduced by another 17.5 percent.

Closing the "climate gap"

Hence the uncomfortable question remains: Is Germany’s renewable energy and climate policy effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, or were the country’s achievements down to other factors? Germany was given a head start in 1990 when, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, the decline of the East German industrial and power sectors meant automatic CO2 reductions (so-called “wall-fall profits”). In 2009, emissions dropped by 6.9 percent compared to the previous year due to the economic crisis, which saw many companies scale down production (Figure 3). However, in the years that followed, the hope that this trend would continue was disappointed. 

The German government has been well aware of the “climate gap”, admitting in 2014 that the current trajectory would achieve only a 33 percent CO2 reduction by 2020. Other studies have concluded that this gap could be even bigger. In December 2014, the Ministry for Environment and the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) addressed the shortfall of 7 percentage points with their Climate Action Programme detailing additional measures and CO2 saving potential to ensure that Germany will reach its climate targets (See Factsheet: Climate Action Programme).

The Projections and National Programmes Study 2013 produced by the Ministry for Environment (BMUB), and research by renewable energy consultancy Ecofys, had concluded that emissions from households and buildings (heating and hot water), the transport sector, industry and agriculture were largely on track for projected emissions reductions. Enhanced energy efficiency standards in these sectors could even account for an overall 5 percent drop in emissions by 2020, if the government increased its efforts in these areas, according to researchers at the German Institute for Economic Research (Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, DIW).

Still, most effort is needed in the electricity and transport sectors. In the electricity sector coal-generated power is the biggest culprit and largely responsible for the 2012/2013 rise in emissions. Researchers at the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut) and the Fraunhofer ISI had found in an analysis of energy and climate policy plans before the climate action programme was announced that the share of renewables in German electricity production must rise to 80-90 percent by 2050, in order to meet the target of 80 percent fewer CO2 emissions by 2050. If Germany missed halfway emissions targets in the 2020s, and the government did not take additional steps, emissions would only fall by 56 percent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, the researchers said. The climate action programme of 2014 envisages to cut an additional 22 million tonnes of CO2 from the power sector.

In spring 2015, the BMWi presented a proposal for a climate levy that would oblige old coal-fired power stations to pay a fee if they emit more CO2 than permitted, designed to reduce emissions from the power sector by another 22 million tonnes (See CLEW newsstory "German government wants to tackle old coal..."). But after protests from workers' unions and the large utilities, the government instead decided on a capacity reserve for 2.7 gigawatt of brown coal plants which is designed to reduce CO2 emissions by 11 million tonnes to 12.5 million tonnes in 2020. The reserve is part of the new power market design, passed by the cabinet in November 2015. The remaining reductions will have to come from an array of smaller measures, mostly incentives for industry to invest in efficiency measures, the government said.

The latest energy transition monitoring report showed that Germany is still lagging behind many of its targets (see Figure 4). But the Ministry for Environment remains optimistic that the extra measures decided in 2014 as well as the new power market design and an eventual coal phase-out in the next 20-30 years will put the country back on track towards a low-carbon future.

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