Germany agrees comprehensive bureaucracy cuts for energy transition, NGOs fear lower standards
Germany’s federal government and 16 states have agreed on a range of measures to cut bureaucracy and help hasten the construction of energy installations, power lines, motorways and other projects. Following a meeting with the states’ heads of government, chancellor Olaf Scholz on 6 November said the package contained about 100 measures that will ensure infrastructure or housing projects can be implemented faster.
He claimed the measures would undo damage previously caused by the federal and state governments introducing more and more rules which meant the country was “barely able to keep up with all regulation and make quick progress”. He said Germany could no longer afford this approach if it wanted to get infrastructure projects done faster.
The package is in line with Scholz’s idea of a “Pact for Germany” announced in late summer, which is aimed at cooperating with opposition parties to foster the bureaucracy reform. The Social Democrat (SPD) politician said cutting red tape at all administrative levels and establishing more digital procedures, among other things, will help build up a national hydrogen industry, more power lines, wind turbines, solar panels, bioenergy and hydro power plants as well as other “complementary” power plants. The chancellor stressed that his announcement was not merely a desire for reform: “This is really happening now,” he insisted.
Replacing old wind turbines to become much easier
Boris Rhein, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) state premier of Hesse - the CDU is in opposition at the federal level - also hailed the agreement as a major success. “Things will only start moving if we pull together and make sure that important infrastructure projects can actually be implemented faster,” Rhein said. He admitted that most of the rules exist for good reason, often out of a cautionary principle to prevent negative aspects. “But we constantly have to work on it and check whether rules are up to date.”
Measures agreed under the 'Pact for Germany'
Digitalisation: Digitalised planning and approval procedures will become a standard and implementation vastly accelerated.
Deadline rules: A cut-off date regulation is to be introduced in planning and licensing procedures that allows so-called fictitious licenses, for example for mobile phone infrastructure expansion. Applications will be considered approved once deadlines have expired.
Shorter deadlines: Primarily aimed at wind turbines construction, the government is to extend the principle to other planning laws. With an expert database and an environmental data register, the government wants to make sure that data does not have to be constantly re-recorded and assessed by experts.
Environmental impact assessment: Replacement structures such as larger wind turbines in the transport and energy sectors will no longer require licenses. A wind turbine location can then be re-powered without new licensing.
Early start: The federal government should create the legal possibility for construction work to begin before some of the currently necessary administrative decisions are made and for some of the necessary documents to be submitted or checked afterwards.
Reform of construction code: Regulations will be cut for the expansion of ground-mounted solar PV arrays or geothermal plants. The states are to include type approvals for constructions in their own regulations, meaning not all projects have to be re-evaluated in each state.
Heavy transports: A major requirement for the expansion of wind power, the previously often fragmented licenses for heavy transports, will to be bundled in a single procedure.
Funding: The states "expect" the federal government to provide them with 500 million euros to ensure "adequate" staffing at planning and approval authorities, the vast majority of which are run by state and local authorities.
Review: The pact’s implementation is to be reviewed regularly. Initial results are expected in the first quarter of 2024.
A key move for the energy transition would be an easier procedure for the re-powering of wind turbines, Rhein said. “If a wind turbine is replaced by another one at the same location, no new construction license will be needed in the future,” the state premier said. The wind power industry has long called for re-powering procedures to be eased, arguing this would be one of the simplest measures to fast-track the renewable energy source’s expansion. At the same time, wind turbines in the future could easily be equipped with other essential technologies, such as cell towers for phone networks, Rhein added.
Stephan Weil, SPD state premier of Lower Saxony, said the quick construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on Germany’s coast in response to the energy crisis had shown how things can be done fast if necessary. “A project that otherwise would have taken years was completed in eight months,” Weil said. The LNG terminal construction could therefore be seen as a blueprint for broader regulatory changes that will now be applied at all levels. The cautionary principle should be replaced by a “pragmatic” one, Weil added.
“A new area of environmental destruction”
Environmental groups, though, warned that the measures designed to accelerate the energy transition could hurt nature protection. “With the ‘Pact for Germany’ to speed up planning, the federal government wants to massively reduce citizens’ and environmental groups’ rights to participate,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, head of Environmental Action Germany (DUH). The NGO leader argued that the proposal “increasingly looks like a wish list for industry” and would use bureaucracy as a pretext for greenlighting climate-damaging activities.
Reducing public consultation opportunities, relaxing control procedures and limiting options for litigation will “shrink participation, environmental protection and the rule of law”, Müller-Kraenner argued. At the same time, the reform did not address problems such as understaffing in administrations, lengthy internal administrative procedures, or lacking and incomplete databases which enable comprehensive digitalisation.
Mirroring the DUH’s concerns, environmental group Nabu called the reform “an attack on environmental standards”. The group agreed that faster procedures were needed – but not at the expense of other public interests. “This will put many achievements in environmental protection of the past couple of years on the line,” Nabu head Jörg-Andreas Krüger said. “We currently lose speed due to short-staffed administrations and courts and will not regain it by cutting down forests,” Krüger argued. In its current form, the package would open the doors to “a new area of environmental destruction”.
Environment minister Steffi Lemke and economy and climate minister Robert Habeck, both from the Green Party, said they will work to ensure that the reform package does not compromise on environmental standards and climate action. “We will make sure that transparency and legal protection are safeguarded and that environmental and nature protection standards are not lowered when implementing these agreements,” they said in a statement. Crucially, environmental groups would retain the right to litigate, and possibilities for citizens to take part will not be erased. Administrations should also be staffed and equipped appropriately to ensure legal procedures are observed, Lemke and Habeck said. Still, both Habeck and Lemke were generally in favour of cutting red tape and accelerating procedures. “Being slow is an obstacle to investments. Germany can only remain competitive if it becomes faster,” the Green Party ministers argued.