28 Feb 2024, 13:14
Julian Wettengel

Germany to adopt 2060 target for net-negative greenhouse gas emissions

Photo shows Climework's direct air capture and storage plant in Iceland by night. Photo: Climeworks.
Swiss carbon removal technology pioneer Climework's direct air capture and storage plant in Iceland began operation in 2021. Photo: Climeworks.

The German government is aiming to introduce a 2060 target for net-negative greenhouse gas emissions, as well as intermediate targets for technical carbon sinks, as key elements of its contribution to the Paris climate targets. By the end of 2024, the ruling coalition wants to agree on a long-term strategy for negative emissions to help deal with residual emissions which are difficult or impossible to avoid. In a document outlining the upcoming strategy, the government says that limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C is "increasingly unlikely", so negative emissions will also be necessary to lower the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to limit the risks of severe and irreversible consequences for humans and ecosystems. The strategy will set the targets, evaluate different carbon dioxide removal methods, and analyse economic incentives to help ramp up the necessary technologies. Experts say Germany could become a frontrunner on CO2 removal policy with the strategy.

Germany is set to establish several targets for CO2 removal from the atmosphere and net-negative greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to help reach international climate targets. In a long-term strategy on negative emissions, to be presented by the end of 2024, the government will lay out a target to have more greenhouse gas emissions removed from the atmosphere by 2060 than are annually emitted. In addition, the strategy will define targets for technical carbon sinks for 2035, 2040 and 2045, which would support natural sinks such as forests or peatland.

The long-term view to 2060 "is intended to clarify how negative emissions in Germany will contribute to realising the goals of the Paris Agreement in the long term," according to a document containing key elements of the upcoming strategy.

The German government is arguing that, on the one hand, negative emissions will be necessary to balance out unavoidable residual emissions, such as methane from livestock farming. On the other hand, the government says that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C looks "increasingly unlikely", alluding to an overshoot, which will then have to be brought back down.

"Beyond carbon neutrality, net-negative emissions must therefore be used to reduce the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere again in order to meet the 1.5°C target and thus minimise the risks of serious and irreversible consequences for humans and ecosystems on Earth,” the document states.

Currently, the only relevant CO2 sinks are natural, such as forests, marine ecosystems, or other land-based ecosystems, says the government. The strategy emphasises that these must be strengthened, but warns that this is challenging against the backdrop of increasingly impactful climate change and the way that ecosystems are poorly managed at present. Thus, it is necessary to also develop and scale-up technologies for achieving negative emissions, such as capturing CO2 directly from the air and storing it underground permanently (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage, DACCS).

The long-term strategy for negative emissions is to be developed by the end of this year on the basis of the key points that have now been agreed by all government coalition partners (a leak was already reported by media last year). A public consultation process is also planned to help develop the full strategy, a spokesperson from the economy ministry said.

Germany is already aiming to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045, and continues to bet on ambitious emissions reduction to get there. However, there will be some residual emissions, for example from industry and agriculture. Germany's existing climate law already says the country aims for negative emissions after 2050, but does not mention a specific target. The government says the upcoming strategy will include a more precise projection, but puts these at about 5 percent of 1990 levels (~60 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents, Mt CO2 eq). Germany is also developing a Carbon Management Strategy to tackle emissions that can be captured at the source, before they enter the atmosphere. The government presented key components of its plan this week, and said the two strategies overlap, especially in relation to the necessary infrastructure for CO2 transport and permanent carbon storage. Others, such as methane emissions from cows, must be balanced out through removing an equal amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Both the German and EU climate legislation already stipulates that net-negative emissions will be necessary by around 2050 to reach global climate targets. Until now, Germany only has net-removal targets for the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector, laid out in the Climate Action Law (25 Mt CO2 net negative by 2030, 35 Mt by 2040 and 40 Mt by 2045).

Strategy could make Germany a "pioneer in carbon dioxide removal policy" – researcher

Researcher Felix Schenuit of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) said that linking the new strategy with the existing climate action law "has the potential to position Germany as a pioneer in carbon dioxide removal policy."

Schenuit emphasised the government’s aim to keep existing greenhouse gas reduction targets in the German climate law, ensuring that new targets for technical sinks cannot be offset against these targets.

The government also emphasised that the development of the negative emissions strategy will be coordinated with other processes, for example the Industrial Carbon Management Strategy at EU level. "When developing the strategy, we will ensure that it is harmonised with relevant EU processes and strategies so that the national methods and objectives are consistent with those at European level.”

The government made clear that ramping up new technologies for negative emissions requires the right economic incentives. On the one hand, these could be regulatory, for example providing price signals through emissions trading: "We are examining an integration into the [EU] emissions trading system.”

On the other hand, the government says it will also "examine the suitability of state funding instruments for the expansion of negative emissions," without yet providing details.

Swiss pioneer company of carbon removal technologies Climeworks welcomed both the key elements of this week's Carbon Management Strategy and the agreement on negative emissions. "Novel CDR [carbon dioxide removal] methods in Germany need to be scaled enormously to achieve net zero by 2045, with recent estimates suggesting up to 127 MtCO2 per year of residual emissions to be removed by 2045," said CPO Christoph Beuttler. "This necessitates a rapid scale-up of all CDR methods, starting today."

Key components of Germany's upcoming long-term strategy for negative emissions

  • Strategy focusses on period until 2060
  • Government says Germany will have about 5 percent unavoidable residual emissions (of 1990 levels: ~60 Mt CO2 eq.). The strategy will include a more precise projection of residual emissions
  • Government says limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C "increasingly unlikely"; thus, negative emissions necessary to a) balance out residual emissions by mid-century, and b) achieve net-negative emissions thereafter
  • Developing negative emissions technologies will help reach climate targets and carries "opportunities in industry policy"
  • Goals of the strategy:
    • Create a common understanding of role of CO2 removal for German climate protection.
    • Develop scenarios which lay out projected need, scope, potential, and already existing negative emissions (stocktake)
    • Strengthen natural carbon sinks like forests
    • Establish targets for technical sinks for 2035, 2040 and 2045 in national climate law, and a target for overall net-negative greenhouse gas emissions by 2060
    • Comprehensive evaluation of all methods and technologies for negative emissions, e.g. regarding permanence of storage and possible reversibility (e.g. through forest fires), as well as resource needs or side effects
    • Present proposals for "reliable monitoring and transparent certification" for negative emissions
    • "Analyse economic incentives" for methods and technologies:
      • develop options for a "viable market framework"
      • examine "integration into the [EU] emissions trading system"
      • "examine suitability of state funding instruments for the expansion of negative emissions"
    • Identify further need for research and development, strengthen Germany as business location for these technologies
  • Definition:
    • "Negative emissions are generated by human activities that remove CO2 or other GHGs from the atmosphere and store them as permanently as possible in geological, terrestrial or oceanic reservoirs or in products." (whole country considered human-"managed land", so even forests and other nature-based solutions included); also used: carbon dioxide removal (CDR), or greenhouse gas sinks
    • Says also non-permanent CO2 removals can make contribution to limit global temperature rise
    • Strategy does not cover capturing fossil emissions at the source, before being released into the atmosphere (CCS/CCU). But: direct air capture of CO2 in the atmosphere in combination with storage (DACCS), as well as capturing biogenic CO2 and then storing it (BECCS) lead to negative emissions
  • Methods include (permanence of storage can vary considerably, even within one category):
    • Forests and afforestation (2022: German forests with net-negative emissions of 43 Mt CO2).
    • Peatland: Germany has only few intact peatlands which can serve as sinks; most of these areas were drained over centuries to use them e.g. for agriculture; drained peatland is a carbon emitter
    • Soil management
    • Biomass production
    • Marine Biomass (e.g. algae use CO2 from the sea for photosynthesis, which could strengthen the sea's CO2 storage capacity)
    • Material utilisation of biomass (can prolong carbon storage duration in biomass, e.g. when wood is used in building construction)
    • Biochar
    • Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (BECCU/S)
    • Waste Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (WACCU/S)
    • Direct Air Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (DACCU/S)
    • CCU (in few applications, if CO2 captured from atmosphere is bound "permanently" in products, e.g. calcium carbonate)
  • Strategy will be coordinated with other national and EU processes, e.g. the EU Carbon Removal Certification Framework, the EU 2040 climate target debate, the EU Industrial Carbon Management Strategy, the EU Net Zero Industry Act, and the EU emissions trading systems (EU ETS); the German Carbon Management Strategy, the national biomass strategy, and other national strategies.  
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