Germany shuns EU letter calling for higher climate goals

German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a press conference after the meeting of the climate cabinet in Berlin, Germany, 20 September 2019. [EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER BECHER]

A group of eight EU countries has sent a letter to the incoming European Commission of Ursula von der Leyen, calling on the bloc to raise its climate ambition from a current 40% emissions reduction target to a 55% cut by 2030, EURACTIV has learned.

The German government refused to sign the letter, addressed to Frans Timmermans, the EU Commissioner-designate for the European Green Deal, ahead of his hearing in the European Parliament later today.

“The European Union needs to commit, before the end of the year, to substantially enhanced climate ambition,” says the missive, signed by the environment ministers of Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

The signatories emphasise the need for long-term vision and short-term action at the same time, saying both timeframes are “equally important” to drive the energy transition forward.

“The EU should, therefore, commit to increase the EU greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 to -55% from 1990 levels and reach climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, in line with the 1.5°C” objective of the Paris Agreement, the letter says, adding “bold measures” are needed “across all sectors of the economy” to reach those objectives.

Environmental activists, while applauding the initiative from the group of eight EU countries, expressed deep disappointment at Germany’s refusal to sign the letter.

“Germany’s conspicuous absence from the list of signatories won’t go unnoticed by the almost 1.5 million who took to the streets all over the country last week demanding climate action,” said Sebastian Mang, climate policy adviser at Greenpeace EU.

“Many are already angered at Merkel’s feeble plans to reduce emissions domestically. Now it’s plain for all to see that her so-called climate leadership is little more than a fig leaf for big industry and German car-makers. Once again, her lack of conviction is holding back the whole of Europe,” Mang said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been sitting on the fence for several months on climate policy. In March, she sided with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in their refusal to commit to climate neutrality by mid-century, before rallying to the 2050 objective two months later.

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Merkel’s about-turn was largely spurred by massive street protests by young people who called for stronger climate action ahead of the European elections in May – a movement which translated into a surge for the Greens, who scored a stunning 20% at the ballot box in Germany, knocking the Social Democrats off their traditional second place.

In September, the German government release new proposals to price carbon emissions in the transport and building sector but those were quickly dismissed as too weak by young climate activists, who denounced the measures as a “slap in the face”.

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The costs of the energy transition for the taxpayer and industry is a hot political potato in Germany. The country is the EU’s most powerful economy and its industry, particularly the car sector, has been among the slowest to adapt to the energy transition.

In August, Merkel condemned the European Commission’s push for more ambitious climate objectives, saying the bloc should stick to agreed targets first before committing any further.

“I don’t think permanently setting ourselves new goals makes any sense,” Merkel told public television ARD, denouncing plans to raise the EU’s climate targets from the current 40% emissions cut to a 45% objective by 2030.

In their letter, the eight EU countries acknowledge the economic and social costs of moving towards a climate neutral economy, saying this represents “a challenge” for policymakers. But they also emphasise the “opportunity”, citing “benefits for economic growth, employment, quality of life, public health, biodiversity, etc.” which are often overlooked.

“To achieve this goal, funding will be necessary to support the necessary investments, e.g. in infrastructure, agriculture and forestry, zero emission vehicles, buildings refurbishment, job training and the creation of new jobs, and to support innovation,” the signatories write.

A transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is expected to have “a moderate to positive impact on GDP with estimated benefits of up to 2% of GDP by 2050 compared to the baseline,” according to the European Commission’s long-term strategy for “a climate neutral economy,” presented in November last year.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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