Expert: German carbon budget not compatible with current targets

"A short-term standardisation of the carbon price could lead to considerable social and economic distortions, as it would have different impacts depending on the sector. It, therefore, makes sense to consider the transport, buildings and agriculture areas individually and to steer them towards their respective goals," said Julia Hertin, the managing director of SRU, the German government's advisory board on environmental matters. [Foto: SRU]

In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Julia Hertin, the managing director of SRU, the German government’s advisory board on environmental matters, spoke about the country’s plans to introduce a climate protection bill, a carbon border tax and a trading scheme for carbon certificates. And she wants things to progress quickly.

Julia Hertin was a research assistant at the German government’s advisory board on environmental matters (Sachverständigenrats für Umweltfragen, SRU) from 2008 to 2012. Following that, she became a consultant in the field of climate and energy for the German environment ministry. Since 2018, she has been SRU’s managing director. 

On 22 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to New York for the UN climate summit.  There, the heads of state are meant to raise their national climate targets for 2030. What about Germany’s climate targets, are they ‘Paris-compatible’?

The problem in Germany is that we have point targets, and these do not provide clarity on whether the path towards them is compatible with goals in the Paris Climate Agreement.

And what does ‘Paris-compatible’ actually mean? From the point of view of climate physics, it is possible to calculate how many greenhouse gases may still be emitted per person to achieve the 1.5-degree or 2-degree targets.

The question then is how to distribute this budget among the various countries. If we include historical emissions, we in Germany are already above our entitled budget.

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We propose that everyone should be allowed the same amount of remaining greenhouse gases. The budget that is allocated to Germany is now minimal and will probably not be met given the current targets.

This means that in addition to the well-known implementation gap, we also have an ambition gap.

We believe that the German government should make the existing climate targets more concrete at the top. For example, for the year 2050, the plan is to reduce greenhouse gases by 80-95%.

Here we should be targeting the upper limit and focus on offsetting residual emissions that are unavoidable. Moreover, a German climate protection law could also promote greater ambition.

In your last environmental report to the government, you suggested that the environment ministry should be allowed to initiate laws outside its field of responsibility. Do you have any concrete proposals?

Yes. For example, the transport ministry did not initiate the overhaul of the traffic sector for a very long time and was very late in presenting its proposals to the climate cabinet.

Why should the environment ministry not be able to initiate such a proposal by itself? It is about being able to make proposals instead of always waiting for the initiatives from other ministries.

What do you think of Mr Scheuer’s proposals for the climate protection law?

The minister set the following standard: no price hikes, no bans.

Instead, he is focusing above all on support. In so doing, however, he is robbing himself of a half of his ‘instrument box’.

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Support measures are also expensive for the federal budget. Above all, however, the proposals will not bring the necessary savings. Among transport experts, it is undisputed that the climate targets in the transport sector can only be achieved if the right economic framework conditions are set.

This also includes abolishing environmentally-damaging subsidies, such as the ‘diesel privilege’. Regulatory law should not be taboo either.

For example, we recommend that by 2025, a quarter of all newly-registered passenger cars need to be powered purely by electricity.

Environment Minister Schulze had proposed her own climate protection bill in February. This envisaged making the individual ministries responsible for meeting their CO2 targets, including financially. Does that make sense?

Some economists consider targets for specific sectors to be redundant and want a uniform price on carbon as part of an emissions trading scheme. Then, it is up to those sectors that can do this most cost-effectively to reduce their CO2 emissions.

However, a short-term standardisation of the carbon price could lead to considerable social and economic distortions, as it would have different impacts depending on the sector. It, therefore, makes sense to consider the transport, buildings and agriculture areas individually and to steer them towards their respective goals.

In my view, the sectoral objectives are, therefore, a crucial instrument for creating responsibilities. Every ministry and every sector needs to know what their contribution towards climate protection should be.

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The transport sector, for example, is the only one in which emissions have not fallen since 1990. We also have the burden-sharing requirement at European level. If we do not meet our climate targets in the transport, buildings and agriculture sectors, this will result in high costs for the federal budget.

We could think about how these costs could be passed on to the various sectors.

On 20 September, the draft of the Climate Protection Bill is due to be ready.  According to what we hear, the ruling coalition of conservative CDU/CSU and socialist SPD are still divided on whether to introduce a carbon tax or a national emissions trading scheme. Maybe we will see a combination of the two. What would be the most sensible model?

According to SRU, it is less important whether the bill will lead to more control of the price or quantity of CO2, or of both.

Instead, we must find an instrument that quickly creates effective incentives in all sectors.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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