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 latest emissions status with preliminary UBA data from 16 March 2021]

Germany's national climate targets

Germany, like the European Union, aims to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2050. It has set the preliminary target of cutting emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

The country's first national climate law, passed in 2019, 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. 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 2025, and that these must be in line with the goals of the law and the requirements of the European Union – hence, climate neutrality by 2050. An independent council of experts on climate issues will be set up by the federal government to evaluate emissions data, changes in climate action programmes and more.

Table shows Germany's 2030 sector targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction and 2019 status

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. While an EU climate law to put the 2050 target into legislation is currently under debate, about 10 other nations worldwide have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by at least 2050 through policy documents. Some of these expressed their target in terms of 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".

A little over 70 nations signalled their intention to reach net zero CO₂ emissions at the COP25 UN climate conference in December 2019. 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

Though Germany is known as a green pioneer, its climate targets derive from the European Union's greenhouse gas emission reduction plans.

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).

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.

Under the EU's effort sharing 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 emissions 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”. Ultimately, the shortfall may be multiplied by a factor of 1.08 and this penalty added to the following year's obligations. Failing to comply with its reduction targets could thus mean Germany having to buy emission allocations from other member states at a high cost.

As the EU has announced its Green Deal and pledged to become the world's first climate-neutral continent, the bloc will also raise its 2030 target. EU leaders agreed to increase it from -40 percent to at least -55 percent compared to 1990 levels, as proposed by the European Commission. This target is now being negotiated with the European Parliament and will then be enshrined in the EU climate law.

Germany will also need to do more and is likely to adapt its national climate target accordingly.

Greenhouse gas emissions – status

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 8.7 percent in 2020, 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, 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 decreased climate-harmful emissions, with a combined reduction of about 70 million tonnes 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 reached their assigned greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2020.

Graph shows greenhouse gas emission trends in Germany by sector 1990-2020. Source: CLEW 2021.
Data Source: UBA 2021

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 196 million tonnes to reach the 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 1990-2019

Catching up on the original 2020 target

By 2020, the German government had initially aimed for an emission reduction of 40 percent (compared to 1990 levels). Stubbornly high emissions suggested the country would miss this target by a wide margin, leading the government to introduce climate action programmes for additional reductions over the years.

But the significant reductions in 2018 and 2019 have pushed Germany much closer to the target than expected. Due to the economic impact of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, emissions are expected to plunge even deeper in 2020, making it extremely likely that Germany will meet its original 2020 target after all.

The country is, however, still struggling to cut emissions in the transport and heating sectors and is facing a slow-down in the roll-out of renewable energy. These trends indicate that it will require continued efforts to meet Germany’s future climate targets, even in the event of a severe recession caused by the pandemic and consequent steep drop in emissions. Climate experts have warned that a recession will not bring about structural changes to ensure further reduction, and that emissions could rebound with the economy.

Graph shows German greenhouse gas emissions by sector 1990-2019 and emission budgets 2020-2030

Germany's greenhouse gas emissions by sector

Between 1990 and 2019, all sectors have achieved emission reductions – although the sizes of these reductions differ widely. 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 (32% in 2019) of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Here, emissions had fallen the second-most by 2019 – more than 45 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 have become cheaper options, leading to significant emission drops.

With 23 percent, industry is responsible for the second-largest share of Germany's emissions. Here, emissions have fallen by 34 percent since 1990, the third-largest reduction among the sectors. Raising production processes' efficiency has reduced the bulk of emissions. The rising price on carbon allowances in 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 second-largest emission reduction since 1990 (42%). It is responsible for 15 percent of total emissions. 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 is responsible for over 20 percent of total emissions, the sector has only managed to lower its output by 0.6 percent over the past 29 years. Despite vehicles being less emission-intensive today than then, an increase in road traffic has left total emissions largely unchanged. The country aims to have 7 to 10 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2030. At the end of 2019, the number was about 240,000. Together with buildings, it is an area where Germany must significantly speed up measures in order to reach its overall goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.

Agriculture emissions (excluding LULUCF) have fallen by around 24 percent since 1990, while they make up a little over eight percent of total emissions. 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 76 percent since 1990. The sector has succeeded in avoiding harmful emissions through reorganisation and by sorting waste.

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 June 2019 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. The commission gave low marks to the latest Energiewende progress report stating that the energy transition lagged behind in key areas and the government had failed to provide answers on how to get the country back on track.

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 2019.

Since then, the government has, however, presented a climate package and its Climate Action Programme 2030 which lay the bedrock for future climate policy. It has introduced a carbon price in the buildings (heating) and transport sectors which will come into force in 2021 and adopted Germany's first climate law, which sets more ambitious targets – aiming for climate neutrality by 2050.

For now, the quantitative targets of the energy transition stated in the last progress report remain valid, the economy ministry told Clean Energy Wire. But new more ambitious targets are currently being put into legislation – such as reaching a share of 65 percent renewables in power consumption already by 2030.

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 40 percent of the country's power consumption was covered by renewables in 2019, exceeding the 2020 target of 35 percent one year ahead of time. The government is now taking aim at 65 percent by 2030, as is stated in its Climate Action Programme 2030.

Their share in the country's gross final energy consumption, however, remains comparatively low at 17.5 percent - although very close to the 2020 target of 18 percent. By 2030, the government aims for a share of 30 percent.

Table shows Germany's renewable energy targets and status 2019

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.

Graph shows share of energy from renewable sources in the EU member states

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 2050. 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 aims to reduce primary energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 2008 levels. But in 2019, it was only about halfway there. Gross electricity consumption, which is aimed to decrease by 10 percent by 2020 had only fallen by 6.7 percent by 2019.

The economy ministry forecasts electricity consumption to lie slightly below 2019-levels in 10 years, but this has been widely criticised as many experts expect electric mobility and other factors to substantially increase power demand. 

Table shows Germany's energy efficiency and consumption targets and status 2019

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.

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