The long march to net-zero emissions

The remarkable spectacle of the global Fridays for Future school strikes has grabbed the world’s attention. Paul Hockenos asks if the students can hold on to it.

Young people protesting against the climate policies

Fridays for Future school strike in Berlin (Photo by Jörg Farys / Fridays for Future; CC BY 2.0)

Germany is not the only country where the Fridays for Future campaign has run with the momentum from the March 15 protests, when 1.6 to 2 million young people demanded action on climate change from the streets. The school strikes have continued every week since, though in smaller numbers. The most recent rallies on Friday, April 5, happened in 54 towns across Germany, as well as in 400 other locations in 67 countries.

Yet, some observers ask skeptically how the young people expect to muster so much enthusiasm for the long haul and, ultimately, to what effect? Are their sweeping, uncompromising demands – like that Germany exit coal-fired power generation in 2030 – not naïve? Can rising climate activism really expect to move anything at the political level at a time when climate policies are stymied, in Germany and most everywhere else?

Thus far, even the young activists admit, there’s been no concrete action in terms of new or enhanced climate policies. This would, however, be a lot to expect from a movement that in most countries is just a few months old. The climate strikes most obvious impact so far is the way they’ve shifted the discourse and reframed the debate in Europe – something huge for an upstart grassroots campaign, and it signals that this uprising is not a flash in the pan, if the students broaden their movement and persevere.

To the kids’ credit, it’s obvious that in Europe the political class has, at least, heard them, and appears moved by the unprecedented outpouring. German chancellor Angela Merkel paid the young people (rather faint) praise (though twice) in March, and on April 4 called for “radical shift” to e-mobility and hydrogen propulsion to decarbonize Germany’s transportation sector. The movement’s leaders have meet with German cabinet ministers, the French president, EU commissioners, the highest-ranking UN officials, and even recently Barack Obama. In civil society, there has been plentiful solidarity, including the formation of Parents for Future, Entrepreneurs for Future, Teachers for Future groups, and more. In German-speaking countries, 26,000 natural scientists have rallied around the campaign as Scientists for Future – and help the kids with the technical material.

“The kids are saying what we’ve been saying for 20 or 30 years. But they’re getting a hearing right now that we never got,” says Volker Quaschning, a professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and co-founder of Scientists for Future.

The kids’ greatest feat has been to inject urgency and numbers into a vague, lethargic discourse. They’ve accomplished this by doing something that only their generation could do: they’ve linked the present and the future of the climate change conundrum by putting themselves at its center – physically and hypothetically. The issue is no longer one of distant people (or polar bears) and the distant future (2040, 2050, 2100) but rather it’s about them, our kids, and credible strategies to secure the future of those born into a warming world.

“You’re all going to be dead in 2050,” one young activist said last week in Berlin. “We’re not. You’re sealing our future now.” This is something that neither think tanks nor parties, NGOs nor scientists could say—and it resonates far beyond the usual suspects. They kids have done nothing less than to invent a new way to talk about climate change and its remedy.

The shift in discourse may not have changed policy yet, but it is obviously wind in the sails of the pro-climate voices in Merkel’s cabinet, the EU, and elsewhere. Germany’s environment minister, Svenja Schulze, will be heading up a new climate cabinet that will coordinate emissions reduction efforts across various ministries to reach the country’s 2030 climate targets, namely 55 percent reduction of emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The government will also develop a climate law to chart the way, which Spiegel magazine reported this week may include a serious tax on carbon, which hadn’t originally been in the plans.

In the meantime, though, the hardline climate-protection obstructers continue to fight a vigorous rearguard battle. Germany’s arch conservative Bavarian transportation minister won’t budge even a little on setting an Autobahn speed limit – of any kind. Merkel’s probable successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, opposes key aspects of the environment ministry’s plan to get Germany’s climate policy back on track. In the EU, Germany is siding with the Central Europeans to block a European Commission plan to decarbonize the EU by 2050.

As for the looming question about when the school strikers intend to return to their classrooms, they responded concretely this week: when the German government has convincingly set itself on track to fulfil its Paris summit obligations. This, they’ve calculated, means exiting coal generation by 2030, transitioning completely to renewables and net-zero emissions by 2035, and instituting a carbon tax of €180 a ton on all sectors. All subsidies for fossil fuel production – an estimated €5.5 billion a year – must end now. Nuclear power is nowhere in the picture, and it won’t be.

The Friday climate strikers and their doubters have to keep in mind that social movements rarely affect policy overnight, but rather shift the parameters of discourse and culture until parties representing their interests come to power – and drive new policies forward. There are no better examples than West Germany’s mass movements, such as the women’s, the peace, and the anti-nuclear energy campaigns, which took decades to get what they wanted.

In order for Fridays for Future to be more than Greta Thunberg’s 15 minutes of fame, the movement has to be resilient, creative, inclusive, and non-violent. The strikes of spring 2019 are, at best, just the beginning of a very long struggle that won’t dominate the talk shows forever. They’ve given the existing climate movement a tremendous burst of new energy and ideas. Yet they have to realize that a cultural revolution – in minds, lifestyles, and political culture – entails a long march. No country knows that better than Germany.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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