21 Jan 2015 | Kerstine Appunn, Ruby Russell

Countries must commit on climate action for 2015 summit success - German minister

Environment minister Barbara Hendricks looks forward to the UN climate summit and the role of Germany's climate action programme, hails the global contribution made by German renewable technology and doubts the economic sense of fracking.

Germany’s environment minister Barbara Hendricks voiced optimism that a global climate deal would be reached at the summit in Paris in December, vowing to work to avoid another failure like the dramatic collapse of the talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

Speaking at the Handelsblatt Energiewirtschaft 2015 event in Berlin, Hendricks stressed the importance of achieving binding climate targets at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, and said that Germany was already paving the way with its climate action programme.

“If all goes well we will reach an agreement in Paris,” she said, adding that not only industrialised but also emerging and developing countries would contribute according to their abilities, making sure that future global warming did not exceed two degrees – a goal she described as “urgent”.

In preparation for the Paris climate summit, Germany will invite environment ministers from around the world to the Petersberger Klimadialog at the beginning of May and Chancellor Angela Merkel will emphasise the topic at the meeting of the G7 in June, Hendricks said.

By the middle of this year we have to know to what climate action countries will commit themselves to, if negotiations in Paris are to be successful, Hendricks said. “It mustn’t end like Copenhagen – we have to have better strategies for Paris,” Hendricks insisted.

Speaking at the same event, Ottmar Edenhofer, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) warned that there was much to do to reach the two degree goal: “If we keep going as we have been then there will be an average temperature rise of four degrees.”

Following her colleague energy and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel’s headlining comments on capacity markets earlier this week when he was locking horns with utility bosses, Hendricks used her speech to stress Germany’s commitment to its climate goals.

In 2016, Hendricks’ ministry plans to present a climate protection plan for 2050, detailing the measures Germany will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent in 2050, compared to 1990.  “All stakeholders, businesses and employees must shape this long-term path,” she said. “It is not that easy on employees. We need a common path to ensure jobs for the future.”

In December 2014, the government approved what it claims to be the largest climate action package in the country's history. Most observers applauded the commitment to emissions reduction goals by 2020. But environmentalists criticised the lack of a strategy to exit coal-fired power generation, while utilities warned that the big test for energy policy was still ahead with next year's decision to reform the power market.

Hendricks also highlighted Germany’s international commitments, saying that German technology could play a role in reducing carbon emissions worldwide through the development of renewable energy. “There is a worldwide trend towards renewable energies. This opens up great economic opportunities and that can also make us proud,” Hendricks said.

Giving the example of photovoltaics, a technology that Germany made affordable for other countries by granting it generous feed-in tariffs in its developing stages, Hendricks said that once cheap solar power was adopted in developing nations also, this could be “our greatest gift to the world”.

Finding the right technology

While Edenhofer insisted that much of the coal still available for power generation would have to remain in the ground, saying that the big question was, how to shape a carbon market that could achieve this, representatives of the energy sector demanded a more open-minded discussion about fossil fuels.

Joachim Rumstadt, chairman of the management board at utility Steag, and RWE’s deputy chairman of the executive board Rolf Martin Schmitz, said Germany was biased when choosing which technologies it used to prevent dangerous climate change. Schmitz said that like wind and solar power, carbon capture and storage (CCS) was an engineering achievement in pursuit of the same target of producing less CO2 from power generation. A cost-benefit analysis should determine if it was better to invest in renewables or to use power from coal and capture the resulting carbon, he said.

Nevertheless, Germany remains critical of CSS. Many federal states refuse to have captured carbon buried underneath their feet, fearing contamination of groundwater and earthquakes.

Similar concerns exist about fracking. Hendricks maintained that there would be a strict limit on the possibility for fracking in Germany, with legal regulations on fracking currently being drafted by her ministry. “My evaluation is that there will be economic reasons why fracking will not take place in Germany, apart from legal restrictions,” Hendricks added.

Looking at the current development of the oil price, Hendricks said it seemed as if "countries in the Near and Middle East had decided ‘if we can bring the fracking companies in the US to their knees now, we can rise prices again afterwards and thereby push some competitors out of the market.’” Because of this she found it questionable whether fracking had a future in the US or Europe.

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