The Green Brief: Germany’s scramble to net zero

Green brief

Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

The past two weeks in Germany have shown how quickly political winds can turn. 

On 29 April, Germany’s top constitutional court in Karlsruhe ruled that the country’s climate protection law infringed upon the rights of the nation’s youth. The law, which aimed to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach climate neutrality by 2050, was considered too vague by the judges, who gave legislators until the end of 2022 to fix it.

The case previously only of interest to legal scholars and climate activists until the ruling was announced created a political whirlwind. 

On 5 May, the federal government followed up. Taking observers by surprise, senior cabinet members announced plans to aim for climate neutrality by 2045 instead of 2050 and cut emissions by 65% before the end of this decade.

This about-turn from the ruling coalition of conservatives (CDU/CSU) and social democrats (SPD) is remarkable given the time it took to reach an agreement on a coal phase-out date last year.

Germany’s ‘grand coalition’ negotiated a 2038 coal exit date just last year, after months of excruciating talks. The exit date was criticised for being too late, including implicitly by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who called on all OECD countries to phase out coal by 2030 at the latest.

That same coalition government is now suddenly bursting at the seams with new climate-friendly pledges.

So what caused this sudden change of heart? The court ruling was surely a trigger. But another obvious answer is the upcoming general election in September.

The German Greens have made sweeping popularity gains since the 2017 federal elections, and most polls are now putting them north of 25% in voting intentions.

This has made the Greens and their climate agenda a force to be reckoned with in German politics and a serious contender to form a coalition government after the September election.

By announcing plans for climate neutrality in 2045, the SPD and CDU are sending a message to voters: if you care about climate, you don’t need to vote for the Green Party. 

In doing so, the ruling coalition is also probably seeking to undercut the Greens and push them into a corner by forcing them to take a more radical stance on environmental matters that could scare off the more moderate among the Green’s electorate.

This mirrors a strategy adopted at the EU level by the European People’s Party (EPP), which counts the CDU among its members. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president and former defence minister in Germany’s grand coalition, made climate policy the centrepiece of her mandate after the ‘green wave’ of the 2019 European elections.

If anything, the move signals a race to the top with parties now engaged in a beauty contest over green policies.

For Europe, this means an acceleration of the race to net-zero emissions, the EU’s long-term goal for 2050. It will also open some breathing space for other countries, like Poland, to meet the bloc’s net-zero target on time.

–  By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer and Frédéric Simon

 

This week’s top stories

 

News from the capitals

ATHENS. Green investments in Greece will exceed €44 billion by 2030. Green investments in Greece will exceed €44 billion by 2030 through the implementation of 21 actions financed by the recovery and resilience fund, Environment and Εnergy Minister Kostas Skrekas said at an online event for Green Hydrogen on Tuesday. Read more.

BERLIN. With the Greens increasingly likely to hold sway in the future German government after the 26 September election, EURACTIV took stock of the party’s position on gene-editing, which could prove to be a turning point for Germany’s position and the ongoing debate in the EU. Read the full story.

PARIS. Macron may drop the referendum on including environmental preservation in the Constitution.  French President Emmanuel Macron may well have to abandon the pledge he made to the Citizen’s Climate Convention in December to organise a referendum on whether to include environmental preservation in Article 1 of the French Constitution as senators failed to agree on appropriate wording, French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche reported. Read more.

LJUBLJANA. Slovenia’s coal power plant may shut down earlier than expected. Slovenia aims to phase out coal by 2033 under current plans, but the country’s only remaining coal-fired power plant, in Šoštanj, may be forced by the soaring price of emission coupons to shut down even earlier. Read more.

BERLIN. The German Greens’ candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock on Thursday said her country must be more active on foreign policy and take more responsibility for its own security, in a sign the party is shifting from its pacifist stance towards the centre. Read the full story here.

BERLIN. Germany has announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2045, in a landmark shift in climate policy driven by a recent constitutional court ruling demanding better defined emissions targets after 2030. Full story.

MADRID. Spain’s green recovery plan among EU’s best, experts say. The contribution of Spain’s recovery, transformation and resilience plan to the green transition is among the best in the EU, according to a report by international climate experts, highlighting the lack of European ambition to decarbonise the economy. Read the full story

 

News in brief

Clarification on ETS reform. Another snippet of information about the revision of the emission’s trading scheme (ETS) came on Tuesday from the head of Frans Timmermans’ team, Diederik Samsom, who said the scheme will run “adjacent” to the current ETS, with a different carbon price, and will create revenues for a just transition.

“If we extend the ETS, we will set it up as an adjacent system to the current ETS, so it will be a different price, and then [the price] depends a lot on the time that we take to phase it in and the cap that we’ve set during that phase in… But the overall system of extending the ETS to roads and buildings brings you about €40 billion a year, of which a bit more than half is actually from road transport,” said Samson.

“The advantages of the ETS, as I said, are that it will deliver you to the target, it will incentivise the right players in the system, and it will create revenues to guarantee a just transition,” he added.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, confirmed that buildings and road transport would be included in the ETS in April, after a speech from Commissioner Kadri Simson in March suggested this would be the case. But there are many critics for such a move, including Timmermans himself, who has said he is against an extension into road transport. (Kira Taylor and Sean Goulding Carroll | EURACTIV.com)

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EEA review of national science advisory bodies. In a new briefing, the European Environment Agency (EEA) takes a comparative look at the national advisory bodies created to support national climate law-making across Europe. Whilst almost every European country has established an advisory body on climate change, these may differ greatly by their mandate, composition, resources, etc., the report found out. The study looked at the 32 member countries of the EEA, plus the United Kingdom. Full report here.

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Korea’s take on EU climate ambition. In an interview with EURACTIV, Yoon Soon-gu, ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Brussels, said: “I believe that climate change will be a key area to strengthen cooperation between Korea and the EU in the coming years. I hope that Korea and the EU search for various ways to promote cooperation in achieving carbon neutrality and promoting Green Deal policies in the international community.”

But he warned that the carbon border adjustment mechanism was causing concern for Korean companies. Europe is Korea’s third-biggest trade partner and he highlighted concern that the tariff could act as a new trade barrier. In implementing it, the EU needs to remember two things: that some countries, including Korea, already have similar carbon prices to the EU and that whatever measure is put in place should be compatible with world trade organisation rules, he explained. Read the full interview here (Alexandra Brzozowski and Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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German central bank heralded ‘Best Climate Killer’. The German Bundesbank was awarded ‘Best Climate Killer’ in a spoof ceremony organised on its doorstep by the climate activist group, Koala Kollektiv. They accused the bank of blocking European Central Bank (ECB) reforms to align with the Paris Agreement.

“We warmly congratulate the Deutsche Bundesbank and Jens Weidmann on winning the Best Climate Killer Award 2021. Not many can claim to be making the lives of so many people worse so permanently,” the activists said on Twitter.

Jens Weidmann, President of the German Federal Bank, replied to their criticism, saying central banks must keep within their own mandates, but added: “I am convinced that central banks can support climate policies within their mandates. In particular, they should do more to address climate-related risks. Both climate change and the transition to a climate-neutral economy can be sources of financial risks.”

Greenpeace has also been vocal on the ECB reform, including paragliding onto the bank to protest its policy. Read more in German or English on Koala Kollektiv’s Twitter and the Bundesbank’s response here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Melting glaciers are changing the Earth’s axis and poles. The shift in the distribution of water on Earth, due to melting glaciers, has moved the north and south poles. While these naturally wander, the north pole moved towards Russia almost 20 times quicker between 1995 and 2010 than in the previous 15 years. The Guardian reports.

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Man-made methane emissions could almost halve this decade. Climate-destroying methane emissions can be reduced by 45% this decade, slashing warming by 0.3°C by 2045, according to a report by Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the United Nations Environment Programme. Not only would this help put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5°C, but it would also reduce air pollution, preventing 260,000 premature deaths.

But the need for action is urgent, as levels of this potent greenhouse gas are increasing faster than any time since records began and it remains responsible for around 30% of warming. The good news is that there are measures specifically targeting methane, half of which could have a negative cost, meaning the money could be recuperated quickly.

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. Read our story on it here and the full report here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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IEA report on minerals for clean energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report on Wednesday (5 May) about “The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions”. According to the IEA, this is “the most comprehensive global study to date on the central importance of minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements in a secure and rapid transformation of the global energy sector.” It recommends six key areas of action for policymakers to ensure that critical minerals enable an accelerated transition to clean energy rather than becoming a bottleneck. 

The IEA report follows the launch in September of a new EU industry alliance for raw materials whose first mission will be to build “strategic autonomy for the rare earths and magnets value chain, before extending to other raw material areas”.

Here’s a link to the full IEA report, Press release, and Executive summary. Fans of Fatih Birol can even watch the full press conference on YouTube. (Frédéric SIMON | EURACTIV.com).

 

Opinions

 

Upcoming events

20 MAY. Cogeneration and district heating: an enabler of the green transition? Jakup Dalunde MEP, and Paul Voss and Hans Korteweg from the industry will discuss how effective integration between heat and power can meet energy efficiency goals and what this means for the industry Programme and registration here. (Supported by PGE)

26 MAY. EU agenda for global forests – getting the balance right. With a keynote address from environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius and more speakers to be confirmed, looking at how to get the balance right in the EU’s forest protection agenda. Programme and registration here. (Supported by COCERAL, FEDIOL and FEFAC)

27 MAY. China, EU and US cooperation on climate change – is there political will to make real progress? Together China, the EU and the US are responsible for around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Join Jacob Werksman, from the European Commission’s climate department, green MEP, Henrike Hahn, Ye Qi from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe to discuss how these countries can be climate game-changers. Programme and registration here. (Supported by the Mission of China to the EU)

4 JUNE. COP26: will it be different this time? Join Dimitrios Zevglios from the European Commission’s climate department, Jytte Guteland MEP and former Conservative MP Amber Rudd to discuss how the global community will have to work together to address the climate challenge at COP26 and beyond. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Equinor)

 

On our radar

12 May: Commission to publish zero-pollution action plan for water, air and soil as part of the European Green Deal.

25 MAY: EU summit in Brussels (face-to-face). Discussions with centre on the coronavirus crisis, the battle against climate change and tensions with Russia. More.

21 JUNE: Environment council. Ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the climate adaptation strategy.

14 JULY: Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in June, including a revision of the renewable energy directive, a revision of the emissions trading scheme and our first glimpse at a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

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