24 Oct 2016 | Sören Amelang

Activists hope new climate unit signals transport ministry shift

Plans for a new climate department in Germany’s transport ministry could signal the issue will receive greater policy attention after years of neglect by the ministry, according to activists. But they also warn a new department alone is no guarantee for a policy shift.

Germany’s transport ministry, which is under fire for its handling of the Dieselgate scandal and slow progress in cutting emissions in the transport sector, plans to raise the internal standing of climate protection by setting up a new department dedicated to the issue.

“Climate protection plays a large role in transport policy,” a ministry spokesperson told the Clean Energy Wire, adding the new unit would serve to “strengthen the topic and focus competencies in this area” as a “central contact point for all climate-relevant questions.”

“For example, this affects topics such as the mobility strategy, the e-car strategy, the fuel strategy, strengthening rail transport, supporting alternative propulsion technologies, and combining various modes of transport,” the spokesperson said, confirming a Süddeutsche Zeitung report.

Germany's shift to renewable energy ­– dubbed the Energiewende – has made significant headway in the power sector, but there has been very slow progress in transport, where CO2 emissions have stayed essentially flat over the past 25 years (For background, read the CLEW dossier The energy transition and Germany’s transport sector.)

Mobility experts believe the transport ministry is partly to blame for high transport emissions, because transport minister Alexander Dobrindt and his ministry have often put the brakes on climate initiatives. Recently, Dobrindt called a push by German federal states to end sales of conventional cars by 2030 “totally unrealistic”, adding that the date was “simply nonsense.”

Does the ministry take climate seriously?

The German transport and environmental association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), which promotes sustainable mobility, called the climate unit plans a surprise, given the ministry’s track record.

“If this is a sign that the transport ministry starts to take climate protection seriously, it would be a welcome development,” Gerd Lottsiepen, the VCD’s transport policy spokesperson, told the Clean Energy Wire.

But he also warned: “The transport ministry has never been a pioneer when it comes to climate protection, but instead it has always dragged its foot. This is why I would recommend a healthy dose of scepticism. A new department alone does not imply a policy shift.”

Lottsiepen added it was crucial that a prominent transport expert headed the new department. According to the ministry, decisions on personnel have not yet been made.

Dietmar Oeliger, head of transport policy at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), which is one of Germany’s largest environmental organisations, also said the new department could signal “a sign of good will” to address the subject in earnest.

“After the Paris Climate Agreement, even the transport ministry can no longer deny where we’re headed. It seems the ministry has understood it needs to work harder on the issue.”

But Oeliger cautioned the new department will need to be judged by its deeds, rather than its name. He added that key discussions on new CO2 emission limits at EU level in the spring could already be the new unit’s litmus test: “It will be exciting to see the ministry’s position in these talks.”

In the past, the German transport ministry has intervened to avoid stricter EU emission limits at the behest of the car industry.

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