15 Apr 2024, 12:17
Julian Wettengel

Debate about German transport climate policy reignited as expert council confirms “considerable gap” to targets

Photo shows protesters in red bus for climate strike in March 2024.  Photo: VCD / Jan Langehein.
On 1 March, climate protesters in Germany joined forces with public transport workers to push for change. Photo: VCD / Jan Langehein.

Germany's Council of Experts on Climate Change has confirmed that the country's transport sector again exceeded its annual greenhouse gas emissions limit in 2023, and that current policies are insufficient to put the sector on track in the coming years. The confirmation of the third failure to meet reduction targets comes amid a heated dispute among the coalition government’s lawmakers over the reform of the climate law. This could mean that the government no longer has to present sector-specific measures to keep transport on track. This, in turn, could lead to costly EU climate target failures for Germany.

The German government's efforts to rein in emissions in the transport sector are "far from sufficient" to help the sector reach climate targets in the years until 2030, said the national Council of Experts on Climate Change.

"A considerable gap remains until 2030, particularly in the transport sector," Brigitte Knopf, deputy head of the council, said at a press conference.

As required by law, the experts have assessed emissions data for 2023, which were recently presented by the country's environment agency (UBA), and confirmed that the transport sector exceeded its annual emissions limit for the third time. Last year, emissions stagnated compared to 2022. While less road freight transport – due to a weaker economy – led to decreased emissions, an increase in passenger car use balanced out this effect.

The experts said that there currently is no change of trend in sight. "Significant structural changes in the passenger car fleet" that could curb emissions have not yet happened, they stated in their report. "This is because combustion engines continue to dominate both the existing vehicle fleet and new registrations."

Transport has long been considered the “problem child” of Germany’s energy transition, as emissions from cars, lorries and other means of transportation have not decreased significantly since the 1990s. The climate law requires the government to present additional measures to curb emissions if a sector fails its target. The expert council has "a whole history" of letting the government know that Germany must do more in the transport sector, Knopf said. "It's not something that comes out of the blue."

The council has slammed previous policy packages presented by the coalition government as vastly insufficient – and now doubled down on its damning assessment: "The measures adopted in the 2023 Climate Action Programme are far from sufficient to comply with the permitted annual emission limits in the transport sector and a considerable compliance gap remains until 2030," the report said. The government presented the programme last summer.

Reduced financial leeway makes target reach less likely – experts

Since then, it has become even less likely that the programme would enable Germany to reach its targets, the expert council said. This is largely due to a landmark ruling by the constitutional court in late 2023. The court found that the country's special-purpose Climate and Transformation Fund (CTF), a federal budget set up to finance urgent climate and energy transition policy measures, now contains tens of billions of euros less than planned over several years.

"The ruling results in funding cuts this year and narrows the scope for the following years," council member Knopf said. "As almost half of the measures in the climate protection programme are of a fiscal nature, this reduces the likelihood that the assumed reduction effect will actually occur," she said.

The council also criticised that less support has been requested for several programmes and paid out in the past than the government had assumed, for example from the support programme to finance the energy-efficient modernisation of buildings. This means the programmes' effect on emissions reduction will not be as clear as projected.

Coalition dispute about climate law reform

Lawmakers from the ruling coalition are currently in a dispute over a planned reform of Germany's climate law, which would free the government of the need to present sector-specific emergency programmes if one sector is off track. Instead, it would have to present a package that ensures the overall emissions reduction targets for all sectors combined would be met. Environmental NGOs have criticised that this would relieve ministries of any responsibility to ensure that targets are met in their respective policy areas.

Transport minister Volker Wissing last week said that if the reform did not go through speedily, drastic measures, such as driving bans, would have to be introduced in the transport sector to ensure that the targets are met. Commentators said the minister's statements were meant to increase pressure on coalition partners Green Party and Social Democrats (SPD) to agree to the reform, and that no party would seriously consider driving bans. Commenting on the minister's suggestion, UBA head Dirk Messner said "we obviously don't need driving bans," nor would these be debated by anyone involved.

Expert council member Knopf criticised that "the backdrop to the current debate is a dispute about the Climate Action Law, but there is no serious discussion about the measures that are actually needed." While the council did not recommend concrete measures, possibilities included abolishing fossil fuel subsidies, increasing the carbon price on transport fuels while shielding vulnerable households, or introducing a general speed limit on motorways, she said.

NGOs called on the government to "finally change course." Transport minister Wissing had to "propose serious measures instead of diverting attention from his own responsibility with misleading statements about driving bans," Stefanie Langkamp of umbrella organisation Climate Alliance Germany commented.

For now, the existing climate law stipulates that the transport ministry has three months to come up with a package of immediate measures to bring emissions down in line with targets in the coming years.

EU target miss could become costly

Even if Germany relaxes its own rules for the transport sector to reduce emissions and allows other sectors to compensate a shortfall, the country will still be bound by EU targets. Due to the effort sharing regulation, Germany must meet an increasingly strict combined annual emissions limit for transport, buildings and agriculture every year.

While the environment agency's projections have shown that Germany managed to stay below the limits between 2021 and 2023, they predict that this will change from 2024. If a country misses its target, it must purchase emission allowances from other EU countries which overachieve their own reduction tasks.

"This means that other sectors can compensate for a target miss in transport, but only to a limited extent due to the EU effort sharing regulation," Knopf said.

If the projections prove to be true, Germany might have to make payments "totalling billions of euros," conservative lawmaker Thomas Gebhart told news agency dpa.

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