17 Apr 2023, 13:36
Julian Wettengel

Climate council warns Germany against 'pushing off' responsibility to Europe

Photo shows pedestrian walking on German street surrounded by cars. Source: VCD/Markus Bachmann.
Transport remains Germany's "problem child" regarding climate action. Photo: VCD/Markus Bachmann.

Germany must increase efforts to reduce emissions even as the European Union introduces stricter climate legislation, said Brigitte Knopf, deputy chairwoman of the country’s Council of Experts on Climate Change. While the EU will also introduce emissions trading for the transport and buildings sectors, climate action “cannot just be pushed off to Europe”, said Knopf, arguing that the new system would only be introduced by 2027, and that the initial emissions price is too low to ensure climate targets are met. Germany’s transport sector missed its 2022 greenhouse gas reduction target and a necessary trend reversal is nowhere in sight, said the council in its annual assessment of the previous year’s emissions data.

Germany’s government has to redouble efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transport and buildings, as both sectors missed their climate targets in 2022, said the country’s Council of Experts on Climate Change in its annual report. Germany has to fulfil its obligations under European Union climate rules but can not just rely on EU policymaking, said the council’s deputy head Brigitte Knopf in Berlin.

“This cannot just be pushed off to Europe,” said Knopf. While the EU will also introduce emissions trading for transport and buildings, it would only do so from 2027, and with “a rather low entry price”, said Knopf, who is also secretary general at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). “This will not ensure that the targets are met in the buildings and transport sectors.”

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased slightly last year (-2% compared to 2021), but not enough to put the country on track for its 2030 climate target. Preliminary data by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) had shown that more coal use during the energy crisis fuelled by Russia’s war against Ukraine led to rising emissions in the energy sector, while high prices pushed down emissions in industry. The buildings sector missed its targets for the third time in a row, and transport for a second consecutive year.

Last year, the Council of Experts on Climate Change had slammed the transport ministry’s programme of measures to close the 2021 target gap, and has since called for a comprehensive package of measures. However, a long-awaited detailed climate action programme by the government, due for release by the end of last year, has still not been published.

Germany aims to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2045. With its Climate Action Law, it has also set the preliminary targets of cutting emissions by at least 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and 88 percent by 2040. UBA’s data shows that in 2022, Germany had reached a reduction of 40.4 percent.

Climate law reform proposals with risks

The climate law also stipulates that the Council of Experts on Climate Change is to examine the annual greenhouse gas emissions data and assess government programmes to tackle missed targets. However, a recent deal by the government coalition to reform the climate law could change the expert council’s tasks.

The Social Democrats (SPD), Green Party and the Free Democrats (FDP) had agreed to abolish the obligation to introduce sector-specific programmes if targets for the previous years are missed. Instead, all sectors combined will have to reach their aggregated target, so that a miss in one sector can be compensated through overshooting in another sector. And instead of looking at actual emissions data from the previous year, the assessment will be based on emissions projections for the future.

“A possible weakening of the explicit ministerial responsibility […] increases the risk of future target failures,” said council member Knopf. Overall, the experts said that too little is yet known of how exactly the government aims to reform the climate law, but warned that Germany should stick to the emissions budget approach, which is implied in the law’s annual sector targets.

NGOs have criticised that the government plans weaken the existing legislation, because ministries can no longer be held accountable to the same extent as before. NGO umbrella organisation Climate Alliance Germany said today’s expert report made clear that the ministries responsible for transport and buildings are far behind what is necessary, and criticised that the government aimed to abolish the rules that hold ministries accountable. “Olaf Scholz is not living up to his own claim to be climate chancellor - as chancellor he is currently openly accepting that the German government will now and foreseeably miss its climate targets,” said policy lead Stefanie Langkamp.

Government misses deadline on key climate reports

The German government has so far not delivered its report with projections for greenhouse gas emissions of the future. It was supposed to present it to parliament by 31 March, and the economy ministry told Tagesspiegel Background that it was currently working on it. The report would show how far on or off track each sector is to reaching future targets.

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