Germany Reasserts Climate Leadership, Outlines Path to Carbon-Neutral Economy by 2050

With U.S. policies suddenly in doubt, Germany reaffirms its ambition to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent, but has its own political worries.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirms her country's climate goals

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been motivated by Donald Trump's election in the U.S. to reassert its commitment to ambitious climate goals. Credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Germany, seeking to reassert leadership on climate action and help build political momentum, spelled out its plan this week to effectively stop using fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 80 and 95 percent by mid-century.

As the world's fourth-largest economy and a global leader in clean energy, Germany hoped to provide some optimism at the global climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco in the face of uncertainty over what the U.S. policies will be with Donald Trump as president.

"By 2050, the whole German economy will be fully renewable," said Jochen Flasbarth, the state secretary for the Ministry of Environment.

The Klimaschutz 2050 plan envisions a carbon-neutral Germany by 2050, a longstanding target. But for the first time, it gets specific. The plan details how much each sector of the economy will reduce emissions to meet the intermediate goal of a 55 percent carbon reduction in the next 15 years. In previous climate plans, there were no goals for transportation and agriculture, but now all major polluters will have to pull their weight, German officials said.

The plan unveils a catalog of 97 measures, and while it does not explicitly say that burning of fossil fuels must end, its architects say the goals can't be reached without phasing them out.

It's "impossible to achieve 2050 neutrality if you still count on fossil fuel energy sources," Flasbarth said.

Germany's mid-century plan was the first to be announced at the talks in Marrakech, where 200 nations have convened with the goal to begin to make good on the promises of last year's Paris climate treaty. The talks have been overshadowed by concerns about Trump's promise to exit the Paris treaty and the impact that would have on the ambition of other nations. Scientists say the world must not only meet the Paris goals, but also exceed them to avert a worsening crisis.

The U.S. announced its plan on Wednesday, envisioning at least an 80 percent cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. Canada and Mexico also released their national plans this week, a step that's expected by 2020 from all countries under the Paris agreement.

Questions about the U.S. commitment, though, appear to have prompted Germany to take a more vocal stand at the global summit this week.

"There was some discussion over coming to Marrakech with empty hands, until Merkel forced a compromise at the last moment, as German ministers prepared for their trip to the COP22 conference," said Reimund Schwarze, a climate economist with the Leipzig-based Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ. "That was something Merkel did in the very last moment to show that Germany is in a leadership role in climate policy," and it "may have been influenced by the Trump election," he said.

Germany is 30 years years into its Energiewende, the world's most ambitious energy transformation. It seeks to end the nation's use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and power its economy on clean fuels. The shift is rooted in a grassroots movement that started in the 1980s to end nuclear power and gained more momentum after the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. It became official government policy in 2010.

Germany now gets about 27 percent of its energy from renewable sources, including solar, wind and bioenergy, according to the International Energy Agency. Coal still carries a heavy load, providing about 44 percent of Germany's energy in 2015. Natural gas provides about 10 percent and will remain in the energy mix longer than coal.

According to Barbara Hendricks, Germany's environment minister, adoption of the plan is only the beginning of a long process. A federal commission will be charged with keeping the effort moving and consulting with parliamentary leaders to discuss the potential need for new laws.

The specific targets mean that every sector of the economy will have to step up its efforts, without relying on other industries to do the job for them, Hendricks said Tuesday at a press conference in Marrakech. She said the specific 2030 targets are the key element of the plan, ranging from energy reductions of 61-62 percent to transportation reductions of 40-42 percent and agriculture 31-34 percent.

The mark set for energy reductions is particularly important because all the other sectors will largely rely on decarbonization of energy. And the goal for reducing emissions from buildings (66-67 percent) has to take into account the long lead time for investments and planning of carbon-neutral buildings, she said.

To reach the targets, the plan outlines a series of strategic measures, including establishment of a national commission to manage the economic and energy transformation.

In the building sector, that means a continued gradual tightening of energy efficiency standards for new buildings and large-scale renovations of older structures, as well as focusing funding on heating systems powered by renewable energy sources.

The plan for transportation is more vague, simply mentioning emissions reductions, as well as building infrastructure for clean energy for electric vehicles. Similarly, there's very little meat to the industry section, which is supposed to cut emissions by about 50 percent with the option to use industrial CO2 recycling.

And while most countries haven't even started thinking about emissions from the agricultural sector, the German plan envisions the implementation of fertilizer standards and best-management practices for agricultural waste.

Some climate activists said the German plan falls short of meeting the most ambitious targets eyed by the Paris plan, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would require a 95 percent cut in emissions by 2050. But it does show that the country is taking seriously its international obligations, according to Lutz Weischer, international climate policy team leader at Germanwatch, a policy watchdog organization.

"This is a very important document because...it results from a very serious process of stakeholder engagement and consulting and involving all concerned ministries. So this is not a document by environment ministry, this is now a document owned by the whole government—and we'll hold the whole government to account for its implementation," he said.

Flasbarth said the cabinet's long discussions made it "fully understood that coal is a story that will be over before 2050," he said. But while the vision for energy is clear, things are still "a little foggy" when it comes to steel or cement production, he said.

The plan also doesn't say exactly how the 40-42 percent cuts in transportation emissions will be achieved. According to Flasbarth, pushback from the auto industry led to watered-down language in the final report.

Even the softened version of the plan could be at risk in the current global political climate, according to Schwarze. Germany also has a strengthening right-wing political movement that mirrors the rise of Trump, he said. The far-right AfD party, which made huge gains in recent regional elections, questions the validity of global warming science in its official platform and also opposes Germany's climate protection policy and the Energiewende.

"We in Germany could run into the same problem in Germany in the future, if we, as an elite, continue to do what a large, silent group of voters doesn't want to have," Schwarze said. "We saw how emotions can move people."

InsideClimate News reporter Zahra Hirji contributed reporting.

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