Out of order: How Germany can become a climate leader once more

Berlin can make its climate action more ambitious – and galvanise its European partners at the same time

Fridays for the Future demonstrators in Berlin in November 2019

In a recent surprise decision, Germany’s constitutional court threw out part of the country’s 2019 climate law. The Federal Climate Change Act had set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, but it specified steps only up to 2030. For this reason, the court argued that the legislation shifted undue burden onto future generations, including potentially severe restrictions on personal freedoms. This newfound appreciation for intergenerational justice could now help dissipate what might be described as Germany’s hedonistic conservatism, which in recent years has stifled the urgent action needed on climate.

After months of protests by the young climate activists of Fridays for Future, and painstaking negotiations between the governing coalition parties, the Bundestag approved the Federal Climate Change Act at the very end of 2019. The new law incorporated the Paris Agreement goals of keeping the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and of pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C. The act outlined plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. But, instead of rising to the challenge with an ambitious long-term programme, the government delivered legislation characterised by horse-trading between various ministries and widely criticised as insufficient to achieve the Paris goals.

Rather than calling for stricter climate protections per se, the court demanded measures commensurate with preventing future unacceptable restrictions – “radical abstinence” – for generations to come. The ruling forces today’s political leaders to preserve the freedoms and opportunities of tomorrow’s voters. This lays bare the conflict between politicians’ time horizons, which often barely reach beyond the next election, and the long-term challenge presented by the accelerating climate crisis.

Germany’s constitutional court is not the first European court to come to a similar conclusion. In 2019, the supreme court of the Netherlands issued the “strongest” climate ruling so far from around the world when it ordered the government to substantially raise its ambition after it watered down its carbon reduction target. And, earlier this year, the Paris administrative court ruled the French state responsible for insufficient climate action after four French NGOs sued for compensation for ecological damage. Adding to the growing body of climate change jurisprudence, these cases could inspire similar rulings in other countries and force governments across the globe to take more ambitious action.

After years of dithering on climate, the remaining months until the federal election in September are the last opportunity for Angela Merkel to save her climate legacy. To do so, the government must now take concrete steps towards more ambitious climate action and throw its full weight behind the European Green Deal at the EU level. Merkel’s announcement last week that Germany would aim for a 65 per cent cut in emissions below 1990 levels by the end of the decade, and carbon neutrality by 2045 – five years earlier than first planned – seems to signal a shift.

Yet, the real test will come with the upcoming EU sectoral policy reforms. The European Commission plans to present its “Fit for 55” proposals to revise all major energy and climate legislation by July. One of the most decisive questions for Germany will be whether it can mobilise its European partners to drive up ambition on the European Green Deal and establish Europe as a green pioneer when member states review the proposals. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sees a unique chance to supercharge European climate action: “The constitutional court decision is a huge opportunity for Germany and Europe … and can create a win-win situation for both.” But, to show credible global leadership on climate change, Germany must also support its international partners. For example, scaling up climate finance is necessary to advance net zero and help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts.

The remaining months until the federal election are the last opportunity for Angela Merkel to save her climate legacy

The German court’s ruling will surely energise young climate activists, too, who have struggled to make their voices heard during the coronavirus crisis. And it is making climate politics a question of hard choices in the now, rather than a distant future. The court set December 2022 as the deadline for producing a set of new green laws for the 2030-2050 period. But Germany’s political parties have already started to outbid each other with ideas for how to speed up efforts to reduce emissions – a welcome ‘race to the top’.

On 26 September, German voters will head to the polls. Their choice will set the course of Germany’s climate policy for the next decade. With so much in the balance, Europe’s green transformation might hinge on whom they entrust with leading Germany for the next four years.

Jule Könneke is president of Polis180 e.V., a Berlin-based grassroots think-tank for foreign and European affairs, and a climate diplomacy researcher in E3G’s Geopolitics, Diplomacy and Security team. She is also an associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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