Carbon Critical

May 12, 2021

Radical Change Today, not Tomorrow

The ruling by the German constitutional court that the country’s climate law is unconstitutional is causing German politicians to press fast forward on the radical change needed to protect the climate.

A graph showing Germany's energy sector emission budget according to the 2019 and 2021 climate law
Attribution CC BY

“One generation may not be allowed, under a comparatively mild burden, to consume a large share of the carbon budget if at the same time the following generation is … left with a radical burden and exposed to serious losses of freedom.” 

With these words, the red-robed radicals of the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe forced major changes to German climate policy—and called for the end of the procrastination that defines long-term climate policy around the world.

Progress Insufficient

The core of the court’s ruling was that Germany’s 2019 climate law is “incompatible with basic rights” because it does not contain sufficient emission reductions for the period after 2031. The judges ordered the German government to lay out details for these future reductions by the end of 2022. At first glance this looks like a typical climate policy story: in response to warnings of future danger, politicians are forced to make new promises for how their successors will protect future citizens.

But it was more than that because of the court’s reasoning. “Regulations that permit CO2 emissions now constitute an irreversible legal threat to freedom in the future” since “nearly all areas of human life still entail greenhouse gas emissions.” In the judges’ opinion, the constitutional right to a livable climate means that “even serious losses of freedom” could become constitutional and justified in the future. The court used the example of banning carbon-emitting means of transport: if Germany failed to build up carbon-neutral infrastructure beforehand, the justified imposition of such a ban would lead to very serious restrictions on freedom, so it is essential to act now.

If X then Y

To its credit the outgoing German government made these logical leaps very quickly, even though the court ordered no changes to the emission targets for this decade. Within a week Environment Minister Svenja Schulze and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, both members of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), proposed a revision to the insufficient 2019 climate law. Germany should achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, five years earlier than previously planned. There should be a target for 2040, an 88-percent reduction on 1990 levels. Finally, Germany should cut emissions by 65 percent by 2030, an increase on the previous target of 55 percent. That will help Germany do its part to hit the higher EU climate targets for 2030 agreed under the German EU Council presidency last year.

The country is now witnessing an unprecedented race to the top on climate policy ahead of federal elections in September. Under pressure from the rising Greens, ministers from governing parties—the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the SPD—who negotiated the climate law in 2019 could hardly contain their excitement that their work had been ruled unconstitutional. Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, a member of the CDU, praised the ruling as “epochal for climate protection and rights of young people” and insisted that he had always pushed for tighter and more detailed targets. Schulz said she was “curious to see whether the [CDU/CSU] would go along” with her planned revisions for the 2030s, which it had supposedly dismissed in 2019 as something that belonged in a “planned economy.”

The German cabinet did pass the revised climate law on Wednesday and hopes to get it through the Bundestag this summer.

Radical Promises, Radical Change

The revised climate law does not contain concrete emission-reduction measures to hit the new targets. An accompanying “climate pact” outlines what the current government hopes to achieve in its final months, but the unenviable task of implementing emission cuts will largely fall to the next government, whoever is in it. CDU leader and “candidate for chancellor” Armin Laschet has reportedly advocated higher carbon prices on fuels in the transport and building sectors. His Green counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, told the Bundestag it must change the Renewable Energy Law.

At the moment the most thorough analysis of what must happen for Germany to achieve its new targets is a report called “Climate-neutral Germany 2045” from a group of six German research institutions. To hit its new targets, the authors say, Germany should phase out coal power by 2030, rather than 2038 as the coal exit law currently foresees. 70 percent of German power should be renewable by 2030 (up from 45 percent in 2020). German industry should switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen and electricity. Germans should stop buying new internal combustion engine cars by 2032, mostly heat their homes with electric heat pumps—which requires replacing nearly one million gas connections a year—and eat more meat alternatives, among a host of other major changes.

To be sure, there are multiple pathways to net-zero, even when unconstitutional procrastination is no longer an option, and each sector has yearly emission budgets: for instance, if apartments were better insulated, they could be heated with fossil fuels for longer without blowing through the emission budgets for the building sector. There could also be slight changes to the overall carbon budget. The judges in Karlsruhe referred to the budget from the German Advisory Council on the Environment, which is 6.7 million tons of CO2 from 2020 onwards. This could shift somewhat if scientists settled on different methodologies for calculating warming or learned more about the cooling effects of aerosols, or if politicians decided to permit Germany to counterbalance remaining emissions at home by paying for emissions reductions elsewhere or installing negative-emission technologies.

Little Room for Maneuver

But at a certain point the cold math of a carbon budget compliant with the Paris Agreement—a concept the court validated—leaves little room for maneuver. It doesn’t take a complicated model to work backwards from net-zero emissions in 2045. If nearly every car on the road must be emission free by then, and most newly purchased cars stay on the road for over 10 years, then Germans should stop buying new fossil-fueled cars by the mid-2030s. Similarly, a gas boiler installed today would normally last for over 20 years, so Germans should stop building them by the mid-2020s to avoid making the transition to low-carbon heating even costlier.

For so long policymakers have downplayed the fact that protecting the climate eventually requires bans and lifestyle changes, not merely changing which fuels are burned in distant power plants or making combustion engines more efficient. What the court in Karlsruhe has really done is make clear that promises of radical future change, if made in good faith, have radical implications today.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s climate columnist.

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