23 Jan 2020, 10:48

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate targets

This factsheet provides an overview of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions and the government's energy transition targets. [UPDATES 1990-2019 emissions graph with UBA data from January 2020]

National climate targets

Germany aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 40 percent by 2020, by 55 percent by 2030 and up to 95 percent in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The share of renewables in gross final energy consumption is to rise to 60 percent by 2050. Renewables are to make up a minimum of 80 percent of the country’s gross power consumption by the middle of the century.

Germany's climate targets were put on paper in 2007 and have been upheld by all governments since. The 2014 progress report confirmed these 2007 targets, which are subject to an annual monitoring process. The latest monitoring report was published in June 2018.

The coalition treaty of the current government parties, between Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), states an increase of the envisaged share of renewables in Germany's power mix to 65 percent by 2030.

Graphs shows CO2 reduction, renewables and efficiency targets of the German Energiewende. Source: Progress Report 2019.

Ahead of the UN climate summit in Paris 2015, many countries published similar 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, which wants to achieve a 20 percent cut by 2020 and a 40 percent cut by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

In the latest Energiewende Progress Report the federal environment ministry illustrates the structure of the country’s targets in a chart:

Structure of Germany's energy and climate targets in the Energiewende Monitoring Report 2016. Source - Monitoring Report 2016.
Image: IEEP 2019.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy’s (IEEP) 2019 report on Europe’s success in achieving the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals found that Germany still faced “significant challenges” on both achieving climate action goals as well as affordable clean energy, though in both cases the trend was “moderately” positive. “Major challenges” remained, in particular in relation to the country’s per-capita energy-related CO2 emissions, the report noted.

Renewables share in Germany

In 2018, the share of renewable sources in German domestic power consumption amounted to 38.2 percent (31.6 percent in 2016). Renewables accounted for 35.2 percent of gross power production in 2018, according to AG Energiebilanzen.

In 2018 Germany had a 14 percent share of renewables in primary energy consumption, up from 1.3 percent in 1990.

Share of renewables in energy consumption of EU countries in 2017. Source: Eurostat, 2019.

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.

German greenhouse gas emissions

In 2007, the German government set a greenhouse gas reduction target of 40 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recommendation for industrialised nations outlined in its Fourth Assessment Report.

Germany had achieved a reduction of 385.4 million tonnes CO2 eq., or 30,8 percent, on 1990 emission levels by 2018. Compared to 2017, the preliminary 2018 figures showed a 4.5 percent decline in emissions, after a period of stagnation between 2014 and 2017. According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) which published these estimates in April 2019, the decline was mainly due to reduced emissions in the energy industries sector where higher CO2 prices (EU ETS) increased costs for coal and power plants were retired. In addition, warmer weather and higher oil prices cut heating oil use.

2019 looks to have continued this trend. Think tank Agora Energiewende estimates that emissions came down to about 811 million tonnes CO2 eq., or a 35 percent decrease over 1990, due to a drop in coal use and higher renewables-based power production.

Greenhouse gas emission trends in Germany by sector 1990-2019. Data: UBA 2020. Graph: CLEW 2020.

Closing the "climate gap"

It has taken Germany 28 years to reduce emissions by 30.8 percent. Since the government target for 2030 stands at minus 55 percent, there are 12 years left for a further cut of around 24 percentage points.

Despite the 2018 emissions drop, an uncomfortable question remains unanswered: Is the country'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. However, in the years that followed, the hope that this trend would continue remained unfulfilled.

Percentage change in greenhouse gas emissions year-on-year 1990-2018. Data: UBA, 2019.

The German government has been well aware of the “climate gap”. In June 2018, it conceded that the country is on course to widely miss its 2020 target, due to the economic boom, the pressure of immigration, and high emissions in transport.

Taking into account all climate measures decided by summer 2018, Germany will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 33 percent by 2020, according to the latest report on Germany’s emissions projections for the years until 2035 published in May 2019.

Graph shows German greenhouse gas emission reduction sector targets and projection for 2020 and 2030. Graph: CLEW 2019.

In December 2014, the Ministry for Environment and the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) addressed the projected shortfall 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).

In spring 2015, the BMWi presented a proposal for a climate levy designed to reduce emissions from the power sector by another 22 million tonnes by obligating old coal-fired power stations to pay a fee if they emit more CO2 than permitted (See CLEW news story "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 would have to come from an array of smaller measures, mostly incentives for industry to invest in efficiency measures, the government said.

However, the 2017 Climate Protection Report released by the environment ministry in June 2018 said that the Climate Action Programme's measures were not enough to close the gap to the 2020 goal. The expert opinion accompanying the Energiewende Monitoring Report by the federal economy ministry in June 2018 also warned that the country would probably miss crucial Energiewende goals, threatening the entire project’s credibility.

Graph 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 2019.

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and targets 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, however, Germany's greenhouse gas emissions were on a constant climb until they peaked in 1979 at 1,390 million tonnes CO2 equivalent. Emissions have been gradually declining since then (and also since the international reference year of 1990). A comparison between the country's emissions in the past and its current emissions targets sheds light on the annual amount of emissions the country still needs to cut.

The recent stagnation of emissions between 2009 and 2017 was followed by a 4.5 percent drop to 866 million tonnes in 2018 (much of it weather-related), which roughly matches Germany's emissions in 1954-1955 (848/917 Mt).

  • By 2020, Germany would have to reach the emission levels last seen in 1951 (752 Mt)
  • By 2030, the country must reduce its emissions to 1934 (pre-war) or 1948 (post-war) levels
  • By 2050, emissions must be reduced to the level recorded in 1855 (if the government decides to go for the upper limit of its 80-95% reduction target)

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 would need to implement significant changes if it wants to reduce emissions to meet its targets. In the 32 years between 2018 and 2050, Germany will have to cut emissions equivalent to the 99-year increase between 1855 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. "Only" 62.5 percent came from energy use and 1.4 percent from industrial processes. In 2016, the respective figures were 7.1 percent (agriculture), 84.1 percent energy) and 7.5 percent 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.

Sector targets in the Climate Action Plan 2050

Between 1990 and 2018, most major German sources of emissions achieved reductions, according to the sector break-down in the Climate Action Plan 2050. In the energy sector, which is responsible for the largest share of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions (around 40 percent), emissions fell by around 33 percent between 1990 and 2018 (see table below). Even bigger reductions were achieved by buildings (44 percent), while industry emissions fell 31 percent and agriculture emissions 22 percent. In contrast, emissions in the transport sector only fell by 0.6 percent.

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

The sector targets of the 2016 Climate Action Plan 2050 (a non-binding government emissions pathway) are supposed to become part of Germany’s first Climate Action Law which the environment ministry wants to see passed by parliament in 2019. The law includes annual emissions budgets for the individual economic sectors for 2020-2030.

*Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Energiewende is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.

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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