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14 May 2019, 16:28
Julian Wettengel

Merkel says climate cabinet to discuss how Germany can reach net-zero emissions by 2050

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, environment minister Svenja Schulze and Chile's environment minister Carolina Schmidt at the tenth Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin. Photo: BMU/photothek/Thomas Koehler.
“I suggest that we have a discussion in the climate cabinet on how we could achieve the target of becoming climate neutral by 2050,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the tenth Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin. Photo: BMU/photothek/Thomas Koehler.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said that her new climate cabinet will debate how Germany could reach climate neutrality by mid-century. Should the ministers find a “sound” way to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Germany would be able to join several other European countries, including France and Sweden, in drafting an ambitious long-term EU climate strategy, said Merkel at the 10th Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin. Environmental NGOs called Merkel’s remarks an “important, but long overdue signal”, but called on her to walk the talk. [Update adds Merkel remarks about FridaysForFuture protests, Schulze comments on CCS]

Germany’s climate cabinet will debate how the country could reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, said Chancellor Angela Merkel after weeks of pressure by several European countries for Germany to join an initiative to develop an ambitious long-term climate strategy.

“I suggest that we have a discussion in the climate cabinet on how we could achieve the target of becoming climate neutral by 2050,” Merkel told government climate delegates from more than 30 countries at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. They gathered for the tenth time in Berlin to prepare the next UN climate summit, which will take place in December in Chile.

Merkel defined climate neutrality as ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions that remain by 2050 are stored (CCS) or compensated, for example through afforestation.

“CO₂ storage is very controversial in Germany and many people are worried,” she said, adding that this is why she had suggested to hold a debate about climate neutrality in the cabinet.

German environment minister Svenja Schulze also acknowledged CCS could play a role in storing emissions from industrial processes or other unavoidable remaining emissions in 2050. “We have to talk about carbon storage, as other countries do already,” said Schulze at a press conference after the climate talks.

Not about “if”, but “how”

Merkel made it clear that the climate cabinet's discussion “should not be about if we can achieve it [climate neutrality by 2050], but about how we can achieve it.” If the cabinet finds a “sound answer,” Germany could join the initiative by several European countries. “I would like us to be able to do that,” added the chancellor.

Many countries are already committed to a net zero emissions goal, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The debate in several other countries is ongoing. In the UK, government advisers – the Committee on Climate Change – said two weeks ago the country must immediately set a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

France and other EU members have long been pushing Germany to sign on to net-zero emissions by mid-century. Ahead of an EU leaders’ summit in Romania last week, Germany was one of several countries that supported an appeal to boost EU climate action, brought forward by France, the Netherlands, Sweden and others. Back then, Merkel said she could not fully back it, because Germany’s 2050 targets differed from the proposal.

Germany’s current aim is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by "80 to 95 percent" by 2050. But Merkel said in 2017 that Germany must define an exact target during the current legislative period. The difference between an 80 percent and a 95 percent scenario is significant. In a 2018 study, the German industry and trade group BDI said that targeting the upper end is only realistic if other industrialised countries make comparable efforts.

Environment minister Schulze has been pushing for Germany to aim for climate neutrality by mid-century for some time. Her first draft of Germany’s planned Climate Action Law – which is meant to ensure that Germany reaches its 2030 targets – includes a call for climate neutrality and a 95 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050. However, the draft is heavily disputed within the government coalition, with some conservative politicians flat out rejecting it.

Germany “must” reach 2030 targets, govt will implement coal exit commission proposal

Pressure on the German government to intensify climate action is increasing. “Compared to earlier years [of the Petersberg Dialogue] something has changed,” said Merkel. Not only is the importance of the topic of climate change increasing, “but we have children and teenagers who gather every Friday and put pressure on politicians.”

Merkel welcomed these so-called “FridaysForFuture” student protests, with which young people around the world called for more climate action. “Of course, this is anything but comfortable,” said Merkel. “But I want to make it clear that this is understandable. From the perspective of young people, our nature, our society is at risk.” Politicians should listen to the protesters and translate their calls into action, she said.

Merkel has been nicknamed "Climate Chancellor" for her long-standing international engagement for cutting emissions. Many wonder if she can still live up to that reputation in her fourth term as chancellor, now that she has stepped down as conservative party leader and Germany has become a laggard regarding its targets. Germany is likely going to miss its 2020 goal of reducing emissions by 40 percent.

Merkel said the government now “must” reach the 2030 targets and must come up with the requisite legislative framework. By the end of the year, her government will reach a decision on a programme of measures, she said. The grand coalition of Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democrats had promised this in the 2018 government agreement.

In the energy sector, Germany took a first step with the decision by the multi-stakholder coal exit commission to exit the fossil fuel by 2038 at the very latest, said Merkel. Implementing the proposal, however, will be a “true feat of strength,” she said. The agreement by the multi-stakeholder task force is “a very important milestone, which we will now implement,” said Merkel. The government is scheduled to adopt the first cornerstones of how to support German mining regions in a meeting next week.

Especially for the sectors not covered by the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), such as transport, buildings and agriculture, Germany will determine “what mix of regulatory law and perhaps also market-based instruments is the right way” to reach the 2030 goals, said Merkel. The EU Effort Sharing Regulation translates climate goals for these sectors into binding annual greenhouse gas emission reductions for each EU member state for the period from 2021 to 2030. This “must be reliably implemented” in Germany, said Merkel, “otherwise it will be a very expensive affair.”

Germany must reduce emissions from non-ETS sectors by 38 percent by 2030, compared to 2005, and could end up having to pay billions of euros from its state budget to buy emissions rights from other countries if it does not manage to significantly lower its greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the chancellor said reaching these targets will not be easy, “for example because Germany is a transit country.” Any car or truck that filled up on petrol here counted towards German emissions. “We have to have European measures.”

Merkel sends “important signal”, but must walk the talk - NGOs

Members from Merkel’s conservative coalition partner CSU commended Merkel for her remarks. “Angela Merkel is and continues to be the Climate Chancellor,” said deputy parliamentary group head Georg Nüßlein in a statement. “With the intensive struggle to find the right path towards greenhouse gas neutrality, we are looking for viable answers on how climate protection can be achieved without economic disruptions and social divisions,” he said.

Environmental NGO cautiously welcomed the call for carbon neutrality. Merkel sends “an important signal that’s long overdue” by saying Germany might join French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative, said Lisa Göldner, climate expert at Greenpeace Germany. “The entire cabinet must now quickly agree on resilient and effective measures to reduce CO₂ emissions rapidly, and bring them to zero by the middle of the century,” she said.

Environmental NGO Germanwatch welcomed “the clear commitment to climate neutrality by 2050”. With it, Germany “finally emerges somewhat from its role as climate action obstructor in the EU and internationally,” said the organisation’s policy director Christoph Bals. He called on the German government to take an official decision to support France’s initiative ahead of an EU leaders meeting in June.

Michael Schäfer, head of climate action and energy policy at WWF Germany, welcomed Merkel’s willingness to discuss climate neutrality, but criticised her for “once again” not putting forth any concrete measures on how she intended to reach the climate targets.

“Get going, Chancellor, and finally get a comprehensive package of climate action laws under way that will enable Germany to achieve its 40 percent reduction target as quickly as possible, along with the climate target for 2030,” said Schäfer.

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