15 Mar 2024, 13:21
Julian Wettengel

Germany on track to reaching national 2030 climate target but set to fail EU goal – env agency

Graph shows greenhouse gas emission trends in Germany by sector 1990-2023, and 2030 projections. Source: CLEW 2024.

Germany is largely on track to reaching its national target to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030, but is set to fail its EU goal for sectors such as transport, buildings and agriculture, according to projections by the country's Federal Environment Agency (UBA). If Germany manages to implement climate policies as planned – including a rapid renewables expansion, the phase-out of fossil fuels and the switch to clean technologies in all sectors – energy and industry emission cuts will even exceed the sector targets, but those from transport and buildings will remain far off track. The agency also presented emissions data for 2023, which showed a 10 percent reduction, largely due to reduced fossil fuel use for electricity generation and heating, and to a weak economy, which pushed down energy-intensive industrial production. NGOs said that the projected failure to reach certain sub-targets, especially in the transport sector, show the necessity of having sector-specific climate goals, which the government intends to weaken in an upcoming reform.

Germany is edging closer to a trajectory to reach its national 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent compared to 1990 levels, show new projections by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). If the country manages to implement all its planned policies, from massive renewables expansion to switching industry to climate-friendly production, it is set to reduce emissions by almost 64 percent by 2030 - even as the economy is projected to grow in the coming years.

The projection for the first time showed that "we are on track, and we must stay the course," economy minister Robert Habeck said at a press conference, emphasising that "we" in this case was not the federal government, but "the country in all its diversity."

Last year, the government presented a comprehensive package of climate policy proposals meant to put the country on track to meet its 2030 targets. At the time, however, projections had shown that Germany would still emit 200 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 more than planned in the years until the end of the decade. The new data now shows that Germany could overachieve by about 50 Mt in cumulative emissions until 2030.

"This dynamic is astonishing," environment agency head Dirk Messner commented.

Europe's biggest economy aims to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2045 – a significant undertaking for a country with a substantial industrial base, lots of combustion engine cars and trucks, and a high share of fossil fuel heating in buildings. The country's climate action law also prescribes annual emissions limits for each economic sector until 2030, as well as total greenhouse gas emissions limits for the years thereafter. Germany also aims to introduce a 2060 target for net-negative emissions.

Germany set for EU target miss, as transport remains "problem child of climate efforts"

At the same time, Germany must also reach EU climate targets. The bloc aims for climate neutrality by 2050. While energy and heavy industry are governed by a cap in the emissions trading system (EU ETS), emissions in transport, buildings and agriculture have joint annual limits under the effort-sharing system. By 2030, Germany must halve aggregated emissions from these sectors, compared to 2005 levels.

If Germany's aggregated emissions in these sectors exceed the limit in one year, the government is obliged to buy emissions allocations from other countries, which overachieve. This could become costly as more and more countries struggle to meet their targets in these sectors and thus compete for the allocations. Germany already had to buy allocations from Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic for missing targets in the period between 2013 and 2020.

And Germany is heading for exactly this situation again. From 2021 to 2030, the cumulative gap to reaching effort sharing targets is projected to amount to 126 Mt of CO2 eq. While the energy and industry sectors are set to overachieve their greenhouse gas reduction targets, transport and buildings will fail, according to today's projections.

"Transport remains the problem child of our climate efforts," UBA head Messner said.

Germany’s transport and buildings sectors have repeatedly exceeded their annual emissions budgets in recent years, and the government faces  climate lawsuits by environmental organisations demanding more action. NGOs sued the government for failing to present emergency climate measures to make up for the target failures in these two sectors in 2021, as prescribed by the climate law. A court ruling late last year required the government to present measures, but it has since appealed the ruling. At the same time, the coalition plans to reform the climate law, which would mean it is no longer required to present emergency measures for past failures.

Contentious climate law reform

In their coalition agreement, the government parties said they aimed to reform Germany's climate action law, and finally presented the proposal in summer 2023. However, details of the reform are disputed between lawmakers from the ruling coalition parties and negotiations in parliament have dragged on for months.

At the core of the reform is a shift away from Germany’s current focus on annual emissions reduction targets for each economic sector, and obligatory short-term measures if the targets are missed. If parliament approves it as proposed by the coalition, the annual emissions limits officially remain, but become toothless: immediate action would no longer be required if targets were missed in the previous year. Instead, the government proposes to take projections for future emissions as the guideline. If the annual emissions projections for two consecutive years show that cumulative greenhouse gas emissions for all sectors and all years from 2021 to 2030 exceed limits, the government must decide on a programme for all sectors. As today's projections signal Germany overachieving by about 50 Mt CO2 eq, this provision would not be triggered in 2024.

The envisioned reform also means that if one sector, such as industry, transport or buildings, is off track, another sector can compensate for it – as projected for 2030. Critics say that this would weaken the climate law by letting ministries that should urgently introduce more effective climate policy – such as transport, buildings and construction – off the hook. The changes were heavily pushed for by the three-party coalition’s smallest member, the Free Democrats, who are in charge of the transport ministry.

Missed targets in transport and buildings "show the importance of sector-specific targets in the climate law," said Kai Niebert, president of DNR, the umbrella organisation of environmental NGOs. "An aggregate view of emissions can conceal the failure of individual ministries and prevent climate targets from being achieved in the medium to long term," he said.

Legal action has played a big role in the country's climate policymaking. In a decision widely hailed as historic, Germany's highest court ruled in 2021 that the government's climate legislation was insufficient, lacking detail on emission reduction targets beyond 2030. Following the ruling, the government amended the climate law and pulled the climate neutrality target forward to 2045.

2023 saw significant drop in emissions

UBA also published preliminary greenhouse gas emissions data for 2023. Emissions dropped 10.1 percent (to 673 Mt of CO2 equivalent) compared to the previous year, with the largest decrease recorded in the energy sector. The country used fewer fossil fuels like coal and gas for electricity production and heating, also thanks to mild winter temperatures.

Emissions in industry also decreased significantly, as a weak economy and high energy prices pushed down production, especially in energy-intensive industries like aluminium production. The transport sector far exceeded its emissions limit for 2023, although emissions decreased by about 1 percent. "The main driver of the slight decrease in emissions is not effective climate protection measures, but the decreasing mileage in road freight transport," UBA said. Compared to 2022, passenger car traffic increased slightly in 2023, it added.

In January, preliminary calculations by think tank Agora Energiewende based on energy consumption data by AG Energiebilanzen (AGEB) had already projected a stark reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in 2023.

"2023 was an exceptional year for the German economy, with high energy prices and a sharp decline in production, particularly in the energy-intensive industry," said economy minister Habeck, highlighting that the emissions drop was partly due to undesirable conditions. "The year 2023 is nothing to write home about," he added. 

2023 emissions drop "deceptive" – Greenpeace

For Greenpeace Germany, the emissions data for 2023 are "deceptive." "Nobody should confuse a struggling economy with climate protection," said Martin Kaiser, head of the organisation. "The superficially favourable emissions figures are largely due to significant declines in production in energy-intensive industry.”

Although Greenpeace, along with other German environmental organisations, acknowledged the positive overall balance, many also criticised that emissions from transport and buildings were well above the annual climate targets for these sectors. With the target missed by 13 Mt of CO₂ equivalent, transport is once again breaching the provisions of the climate law, the German transport and environmental association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) pointed out. “This failure jeopardises the national and European climate targets,” it said. 

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
« previous news next news »


Researching a story? Drop CLEW a line or give us a call for background material and contacts.

Get support

+49 30 62858 497

Journalism for the energy transition

Get our Newsletter
Join our Network
Find an interviewee