Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy transition targets

This factsheet provides an overview of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions and the government's energy transition targets. [UPDATES text and emissions graph to include AGEB estimate for 2021]

Germany's national climate targets

Germany aims to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2045. It has set the preliminary targets of cutting emissions by at least 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and 88 percent by 2040.

The country's first national climate law, passed in 2019 and amended in 2021, states annual reduction targets for individual sectors such as industry and transport until the year 2030. These are set in line with the European greenhouse gas emission reduction plans.

In case a target is missed or overshot, the law states that the difference will be spread out evenly over the remaining annual emissions budgets of the sector until 2030 and beyond, with further targets set for 2040 and 2045. The ambition of Germany's national climate targets can be raised but not lowered. 

Germany's climate law also states that new emission budgets for the years after 2030 will be set in 2024, and that these must be in line with the goals of the law and the requirements of the European Union – climate neutrality by 2050.

Graph shows German greenhouse gas emissions by sector 1990-2012 and emission budgets 2020-2030

Germany is one of a handful of countries globally to have enshrined the goal of climate neutrality by or before 2050 in its national law. The European Union decided to put the 2050 target in its 2021 climate law, and about 40 other nations worldwide have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by at least 2050 through legislation or in policy documents.

Some of these expressed their target in terms of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions only, while the EU and Germany refer to all greenhouse gasesan important difference. In Germany's national climate law, 'net greenhouse gas neutrality' is defined as the "balance between anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases from sources and the removal of such gases by sinks".

The 2050 net-zero target derives from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) message in 2018: In order to keep global warming to 1.5°C, global net human-caused emissions of CO₂ should be brought to 'net zero' within three decades.

Interlinked with Europe's goals

Germany’s climate targets derive from the European Union's greenhouse gas emission reduction plans. The EU is currently debating a major overhaul of its climate and energy legislation after deciding to raise its 2030 target (to -55%) and aiming for climate neutrality by 2050. The reforms at EU level – expected to be decided by 2022-2024 – will again influence German policy. Until then, the situation is as follows:

The EU ETS covers emissions from power generation, energy-intensive industries and civil aviation through a "cap-and-trade" approach. The EU sets a cap on how much greenhouse gas pollution can be emitted each year, and companies must hold emission allowances for every tonne of CO2 they emit. They receive or buy these permits – and they can trade them. If they emit more CO2 than they have covered by emission allowances, they face a fine of 100 euros per excess tonne.

Almost 60 percent of total domestic EU emissions are limited by an EU-wide target under the Effort Sharing Regulation. This covers emissions from transport, buildings, waste, some smaller industries and agriculture (but not LULUCF), which are not covered by the union's Emissions Trading System (ETS).

Under the regulation, member states together are to achieve an overall emissions reduction of 10 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Countries are, however, required to contribute more or less depending on their relative wealth. This means that Germany has a much higher responsibility than for example Poland.

Germany's allocated emission reduction target is set at minus 14 percent by 2020 and minus 38 percent by 2030. The Effort Sharing Regulation also defines annual emission budgets (AEAs) for the years 2021-2030, following a linear reduction trajectory. Germany's climate targets and sectoral emission budgets are based on this trajectory.

If a member state fails to comply with its annual emission reduction targets, it must come up with a “corrective action plan”. Failing to comply with its reduction targets could thus mean Germany having to buy emission allocations from other member states at a high cost.

Greenhouse gas emissions – status

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 8.7 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, as the coronavirus pandemic threw Germany’s economy into recession and lockdown measures put a damper on public life and mobility. The pandemic added to the effects of the shift to renewable energy sources, as well as mild weather and rising CO2 prices and caused the biggest emissions drop since 1990. Preliminary data released by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) showed that all economic sectors reduced climate-harmful emissions, with a combined reduction of about 70 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents (CO2-eq), bringing the country’s total emissions to 739 million tonnes.

Compared to 1990, German emissions decreased by 40.8 percent, which means the country has overshot its original target of reducing them by 40 percent. All but one sector (buildings) reached their assigned greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2020.

However, Germany is set to miss climate targets in some sectors in 2021. AG Energiebilanzen in December calculated that energy-related CO2 emissions - which make up about 85 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions - increased by 4 percent (25 million tonnes). An early estimate by think tank Agora Energiewende using data from the first half of the year had also warned Germany was heading for a 2021 target miss as the economy rebounded from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Graph shows greenhouse gas emission trends in Germany by sector 1990-2021. Source: CLEW 2022.

In 2019, emissions fell slightly less, about 6 percent year on year. It has taken Germany 30 years to cut CO2 equivalents by 510 million tonnes. This leaves 10 years for the task of cutting emissions by a further 301 million tonnes to reach the new 2030 target.

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) provides the latest and detailed data on Germany's greenhouse gas emissions.

Graph shows percentage change in Germany's greenhouse gas emissions year-on-year 1990-2020

Germany's greenhouse gas emissions by sector

Between 1990 and 2020, all sectors achieved emission reductions, but in widely differing volumes. Each sector has been attributed an annual emissions budget in Germany's climate action law.

Germany's energy industries are responsible for the largest share (30% in 2020) of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Here, emissions had fallen the second-most by 2020 – about 53 percent compared to 1990 levels. This decrease was to a large extent caused by the decommissioning of emission-intensive, lignite-fired power plants in the 1990s which were substituted by more efficient power plants. In recent years, coal-fired power generation has increasingly been substituted by renewable energies and natural gas as these options have become cheaper, leading to significant emission drops.

With 24 percent, industry is responsible for the second-largest share of Germany's emissions. Here, emissions have fallen by 37 percent since 1990. Raising production processes' efficiency has reduced the bulk of emissions. The rising price on carbon allowances since 2019 also helped increase energy efficiency efforts and bring down CO2 output. For the last decade, emissions have, however, largely stagnated and while many energy-intensive companies already have detailed plans for drastic emission cuts, they lack viable business models to implement them.

The buildings sector has achieved Germany's third-largest emission reduction since 1990 (43%). It was responsible for 16 percent of total emissions in 2020. Building emissions have, however, largely stagnated since 2011 and Germany is a long way from reaching its target of a 'nearly' climate-neutral building stock by 2050.

Although transport was responsible for 20 percent of total emissions in 2020, the sector has struggled to reduce emissions, with nearly unchanged emissions from 1990 until the pandemic hit in 2020. Despite vehicles being less emission-intensive today, there has been an increase in road traffic with ever larger and heavier vehicles. The country aims to have 7 to 10 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2030, and it was set to reach its target of one million purely electric and plug-in hybrid cars on the roads by July 2021 – with a delay of 6 months. Together with buildings, transport is an area where Germany must significantly speed up measures in order to reach its overall goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045.

Agriculture emissions (excluding LULUCF) have fallen by around 24 percent since 1990, while they made up about nine percent of total emissions in 2020. A large part of this decrease took place in the years after German reunification when livestock numbers were reduced.

The sector waste and other is only responsible for one percent of total emissions, but these have fallen by 77 percent since 1990. The sector has succeeded in avoiding harmful emissions through reorganisation and by sorting waste.

Graph shows German greenhouse gas emissions in different sectors, change over 1990 levels -- 2020 status and 2030 targets. Source: CLEW 2021.

Energy transition targets

The most important tools for Germany to reach its targets on emission reduction are the roll-out of renewable energies, bringing down energy consumption, and ending the use of fossil fuels in all sectors of the economy. In order to do this, the country has also set a range of energy transition targets which primarily relate to the expansion of renewable energies and reducing energy demand.

The latest Energiewende progress report from March 2021 illustrates the structure of the country’s targets in a chart:

Chart shows the structure of Germany's energy transition targets

The energy transition targets are subject to an annual monitoring process led by the economy ministry while an independent commission of energy experts provides comments. In March 2021, the commission said Germany must rapidly step up its national climate and energy targets to bring efforts in line with new EU-wide goals. The experts gave mixed marks on the status of the Energiewende.

Chart shows summary of the assessment by the expert commission tasked with monitoring the progress of Germany's energy transition - reaching targets by 2020/22. Source - expert commission on monitoring the German energy transition 2021.

As the government has agreed higher climate targets, new more ambitious energy transition targets are also being debated. The updated Renewable Energy Act (EEG), for example, includes the aim to have all electricity generated or consumed in Germany to be produced in a climate neutral way “before 2050”. It also made the goal of a 65 percent renewables share in power consumption by 2030 legally binding.

However, the debate about even stricter targets is ongoing as parties enter the 2021 election campaign. The next government could introduce more ambitious goals.

Renewables targets

Germany has made significant progress on the expansion of renewable energies. Since the launch of support payments in the country’s Renewable Energy Act in 2000, renewables have risen from a niche technology to become the dominant player in the power mix.

More than 46 percent of the country's power consumption was covered by renewables in 2020, far exceeding the target of 35 percent for that year. The government is now aiming for 65 percent by 2030 in the reformed renewables law.

Renewables’ share in the country's gross final energy consumption, climbed to 19.6 percent – surpassing the 2020 target (18%). By 2030, the government aims for a share of 30 percent.

Table shows Germany's renewable energy targets and status 2020

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).

A recent slump in renewables expansion has, however, led the renewable energy industry and environmental organisations to warn that Germany's targets in this area may fail if the government does not take speedy action. Thus, lawmakers in 2020 and early 2021 agreed a renewables law reform with which they introduced renewables support auction volumes for the coming years, and capacity targets for wind, solar and biomass for 2030. However, the decision on a more ambitious renewables share target for 2030, as well as making and including new projections for 2030 overall electricity needs was pushed on to the next German government following the September 2021 elections.

Graph shows share of energy from renewable sources in the EU member states 2019. Source: European Union.

Energy efficiency targets

Germany has made notably less progress on its targets to reduce energy demand than on its renewables targets. Increasing energy efficiency is generally seen as a main pillar of the Energiewende and essential to reaching climate neutrality by 2045. But saving energy on a large scale – by insulating buildings, changing behaviour and introducing many new and often expensive technologies in different sectors – requires everyone’s participation, and has proven a hard sell so far.

The country aimed to reduce primary energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 2008 levels. However, even with the slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic, consumption was only reduced by 18 percent. Gross electricity consumption, however, decreased by about 11 percent, so that Germany reached its 2020 target (-10%).

The economy ministry has been criticised for its forecasts for future electricity consumption, as many experts expect electric mobility and other factors to substantially increase power demand. Economy minister Peter Altmaier presented new, higher estimates in July 2021 which the successful parties can use after the elections to set new renewable energy targets.

Table shows Germany's energy efficiency and consumption targets and status 2020

Emissions in a historical context

A look back on Germany’s historical emissions track record since 1850 reveals that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions have been very much dependent on economic fluctuations and alternations between war and peace.

World War One, followed by the economic and political crises of the 1920s and early 1930s, had a very visible influence on emissions, as did the build-up to, and aftermath of, World War Two. Apart from these anomalous periods, Germany's greenhouse gas emissions were on a constant climb until they peaked in 1979 at 1,390 million tonnes CO2 equivalents.

Graph shows Germany's greenhouse gas emissions 1850-2019 and reduction targets

Emissions have been gradually declining since then – also since the international reference year of 1990. 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. However, in the years that followed, the hope that this trend would continue remained unfulfilled. Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a similar scenario in 2020 and the years that follow, first emission estimates show.

A comparison between Germany's emissions in the past and its current emissions targets sheds light on the annual amount of emissions the country still needs to cut.

  • By 2020, Germany would have to reach the emission levels last seen in 1953 or 1941
  • By 2030, the country must reduce its emissions to levels similar to those in 1948 or 1907

Although Germany has largely managed to decouple economic growth (measured in GDP) from a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the record of the past three decades shows that the country will need to implement significant changes if it wants to reduce emissions to meet its targets.

In the 31 years between 2019 and 2050, Germany will have to cut emissions equivalent to the 100-year increase between 1854 and 1954/1955.

The year 1855 falls within the beginning of the industrial revolution in Germany. For the first time, Germany's fragmented states formed a customs union, which also included parts of today's Poland and the Czech Republic (the data set used for this article generally reflects the emissions from a country’s territory within the boundaries of the time).

The customs union covered an area with a total population of around 32 million, not even half of Germany's current population of around 82 million. Coal mining regions, such as the Rhine-Ruhr area and Saxony, became the first industrial hubs, and the population was growing because of new achievements in medical services and hygiene.

A large share of emissions (21.6%) still came from the agricultural sector. 62.5 percent came from energy use and just 1.4 percent from industrial processes. Despite a boom in rail travel (in the 19th century 50,000 kilometres of rail tracks were built in the German territory) the most common form of freight transport for short distances was horse-drawn carts while people generally used carriages or simply walked.

In-depth explanations on the data can be accessed here.

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.


Sven Egenter

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