Yesterday, Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet officially adopted a set of new laws to help the country reach its 2020 carbon emissions reduction target of 40 percent relative to 1990. Craig Morris says the winner is… efficiency!
Germany has quite a gap to make up towards reaching its carbon goal by the end of this decade. The government itself believes that Germany will miss its target by a whopping five to eight percentage points. German economists at the DIW estimate that 70 million tons of carbon would need to be reduced additionally, while the WWF puts the figure at 87 million. The government expects its new laws to reduce emissions by 62 to 82 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2020, so Germany should roughly reach its target if the climate package is effective.
Fossil-fired power plants are to reduce their emissions by 22 million tons in line with the proposal finally reached recently after a long roller coaster ride. But the package also goes beyond the power sector to include transportation and buildings, which collectively make up around 80 percent of energy consumption and a majority of emissions. Other sectors within the national domain are also covered in the new climate package.
- Transportation: those who purchase new cars are to receive coupons for “efficient driving” courses; bike paths are to be expanded; free parking spaces will be added in cities to promote car sharing; municipalities are to have more leeway in setting speed limits; and special tax incentives will be divided for businesses to purchase electric vehicles
- Buildings: investments in better insulation and efficient heating equipment will soon be tax-deductible
- Other: stricter fertilization standards will be implemented to reduce nitrogen on farms, and landfills are to be better insulated in order to reduce emissions considerably
Overall, some 25 to 30 million tons of carbon dioxide is to come from efficiency gains, such as insulation. The changes in the transportation sector are expected to reduce another 7 to 10 million tons, with stricter fertilization standards taking out another 3.6 million tons. Landfills are to contribute another 3 million.
Will it work?
The political opposition has its doubts – but then, that’s their job. Bärbel Höhn, of the Greens complained on Wednesday that too many details are unclear (report in German), but Environmental Minister Barbara Hendricks of the Social Democrats rejected charges that the changes are only cosmetic, saying that she is confident the new rules will allow Germany to reach its target.
It’s important to put this discussion in its context. Europe has a target of 20 percent lower emissions by 2020, and it is on course to meet that goal. The German target is twice as ambitious, though it includes the gains from Reunification; the government estimates that 10 percentage points came simply with the collapse of the former communist East Germany.
What’s more, the German government itself knew back in 2009, when the 40 percent target was proposed, that such an ambitious goal was unrealistic, as policy researcher Severin Fischer from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) recently explained. That year, the German Environmental Agency UBA wrote that “a 40 percent reduction cannot be reached even if policies are optimally implemented.”
Essentially, Germany offered a 40 percent reduction that year in order to embarrass other EU countries into more ambitious targets. Now, the tactic may backfire if Germany misses its target for 2020. The Energiewende will be characterized as a failure, at least temporarily, for failing to meet one of its main targets (carbon emissions is not the only goal).
Germany’s reputation is thus at stake – particularly during the current international climate negotiations in Lima – but the target itself is voluntary, so there will be no penalties if it is missed. In contrast, Germany blew past its already ambitious Kyoto target for 2012 of a 21 percent reduction by several percentage points. Only the UK had a similarly impressive performance, though the British achieved it by switching from coal to natural gas, a transition that would have happened anyway for financial reasons.
We therefore still lack an example of a country truly exerting itself to reach climate goals that would not have come about anyway for political (Reunification) or market reasons. Germany’s 2020 target is one opportunity for the country to be that example. And if it fails, keep in mind that there will be future targets, such as in 2030. The nuclear phaseout ends in 2023. After that, the growth of renewables will primarily offset coal power now that natural gas is largely been wiped out in the power sector. As unrealistic as Germany’s 2020 target seems, an ambitious target for 2030 will probably be easier to reach.