08 Sep 2016, 00:00
Sören Amelang Julian Wettengel

Ministry avoids concrete targets in weakened Climate Action Plan

Environmental organisations have responded to a government proposal to decarbonise the economy with outrage. They say the Climate Action Plan 2050 will fall well short of meeting climate targets, and accuse the environment ministry of caving in to pressure from the economics ministry and Angela Merkel’s Chancellery to water down ambitious plans and drop important details, like a deadline for the coal exit. [Adds comment from environment minister, chancellor, industry lobby, changes headline to clarify state of the process]

The final version of the German environment ministry’s Climate Action Plan has been published. But concrete targets included in previous drafts have been removed, prompting the Green Party to describe the document as an “admission of government failure”. Germany's powerful industry lobby group BDI meanwhile welcomed the latest version as a "better basis for discussion".

The Climate Action Plan was announced at the Paris Climate Summit as a framework for how Germany was to reach its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050.

Germany is already struggling to meet its 2020 climate targets, and is under additional pressure after Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly said she would make climate policy a priority of Germany’s G20 presidency next year.

The environment ministry’s final version of the plan is still to be coordinated with other ministries and will probably be put before cabinet in early November. But critics say it had already been watered down under pressure from Sigmar Gabriel’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, which insisted on the omission of a date for the coal exit.

In some sections, the environment ministry's plan now leaves blanks for earlier detailed targets. Environment minister Barabara Hendricks stressed during a press conference that negotiations during the consultation process with the other ministries would still fill these blanks. "We will have to put back numbers and concrete measures, that’s what we’ll work on in the coordination with the other ministries," she said.

In the initial statement posted on the ministry’s website together with the plan, Hendricks pointed out that Merkel’s Chancellery had asked for further changes to the original draft of the plan.

“I have accepted these amendments to avoid further delays to the necessary discussions within the federal government,” Hendricks said.

But the Green Party and environmental organisations said the Climate Action Plan has lost all power as a blueprint for decarbonising Germany.

“Hendrick’s Climate Action Plan started as a tiger, but turned out to be a toothless tiger-skin rug,” said Green parliamentarians Bärbel Höhn and Oliver Krischer.

Changes to the Climate Action Plan 2050 came after industry associations repeatedly voiced their criticism of sector targets and the listed measures they feared would harm Germany’s economy and competitiveness.

Holger Lösch from the Federation of German Industries (BDI) said in a statement that the latest version provided a better basis for discussions for a reliable and long-term climate policy. The group also reiterated that any national rule had to be in line with European instruments, mainly the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Lösch said changes to sections about buildings and mobility would be "reasonable".

Preamble stresses focus on industry competitiveness

Among other changes, Hendricks made concessions on the transition to renewable transport, one of the weak spots of Germany’s Energiewende.

A June draft said that by 2030 “a large majority of newly registered cars” would have to be powered by electricity or biofuels. But the new plan only states that “the government aims to significantly lower car emissions by 2030” and that e-cars would contribute to that goal.

Greenpeace energy expert Tobias Austrup said the plan’s soft stance on transport put the future of the car industry at risk.

“As long as an emission-free transport sector is not defined as a matter of course, carmakers will continue to dream of a future for the combustion engine – a future that will not exist.”

He added that without a coal exit and specific targets for different business sectors, the plan “lampooned” the spirit of the Paris Climate Conference.

While the environment ministry has repeatedly called for a managed coal exit by 2045 or 2050, other ministries, state premiers in coal mining regions and trade unions have resisted.

Environmental NGOs praised Merkel for pushing G7 leaders to commit to decarbonisation, and for fighting to make the Paris Climate Conference a success.

But the “Climate Chancellor’s” real commitment is under question because of her failure to push for an end to Germany’s dependence on highly polluting brown coal.

Germany increased power production from renewables to over 30 percent in 2015, yet overall CO2 emissions, as well as emissions from the power and transport sector, have stagnated or increased slightly over the last five years.

Merkel said in her speech during parliament's debate of the 2017 budget that the Energiewende was one of the long-term projects where the government had "achieved a lot" but still had to keep working on. "This includes, obviously, the climate action plan we are working on," she said. "But this has to be a climate action plan where we manage to reconcile jobs and the concerns about the climate."

The plan’s preamble, added on request of the Chancellery, says the document “shows the basic parameters for the realisation of Germany’s long-term climate protection strategy, providing the necessary orientation for all actors in business, science, and society.”

It adds that “the Climate Action Plan 2050 does not contain rigid guidelines”, and that the government will "make it a key focus to preserve the competitiveness of German industry, including functioning, innovative and complete value chains."

Environmental NGO Germanwatch said that government had postponed urgent decisions until after the parliamentary elections next year, and in doing so failed to provide planning security.

Policy director Christoph Bals said “the government appears to lack the necessary courage to agree on a clear strategy” to implement the Paris Climate Agreement, adding that the pending consultation with other ministries was a last chance to create a Climate Action Plan “worthy of its name”.

The cabinet is scheduled to approve the Plan by early November. The Climate Action Plan will not be a law – and so will not be put to a vote in parliament – but rather become part of the government’s energy transition strategy.

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