Germany cuts carbon emissions. Not fast enough, young generation says.

Moritz Richter/Courtesy of Joelle Sander
Climate activists gather for the Wiesbaden, Germany, portion of a global climate strike organized by Fridays for Future just ahead of Germany's September federal election. Young Germans have become a major voice pushing the nation to act faster on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Germany’s climate-conscious young generation finally has the political wind at its back. After the recent national election, two smaller parties backed heavily by first-time voters are now set to join a new coalition government.

This comes on the heels of a historic court decision in April, ruling that the government’s existing climate action law was “insufficient” and “violate[s] the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are very young.”

Why We Wrote This

Germany aims to help Europe lead toward a greener future, yet it still burns lots of coal. Now a young generation is demanding to see goals matched by actions.

Youthful protesters have had much to decry. Germany’s clean energy transition has been fitful, with an abrupt phaseout of nuclear power and a reliance on coal that’s been tough to shake. 

To hit the nation’s target of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 65% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, requires nothing less than a “fundamental restructuring” from power plants to buildings and factories, according to a recent Federation of German Industries report

The estimated cost, equal to 2.5% of Germany’s economic output, is “a lot of money,” says Matthias Zelinger, an energy expert at VDMA, an engineering industry association. “On the other hand, it is less than we’ve invested in the merger of [post-1989] Germany, east and west. So it’s our generation’s project. It’s hard, but it’s not undoable. We have to be fast and efficient.”

Joelle Sander had expected no more than 200 people at the climate strike she organized in September in her hometown of Wiesbaden as part of a global youth-led event. It took place two days before Germany’s federal election, the first in 16 years without Angela Merkel on the ballot.

That day, 2,000 strikers showed up in Wiesbaden. “So much is finally happening after two years of corona. The global strike gave me hope that people still care about climate action, and that our future isn’t dead,” says Ms. Sander, an 18-year-old vegetarian.

In the German capital, around 100,000 climate marchers streamed toward the Bundestag, clogging up car traffic. “Germany is the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide in history, and that with a population of 80 million people,” Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who had traveled to Berlin for the strike, told a crowd. Across Germany, more than 600,000 people gathered on Sept. 24 at various climate events, say organizers.

Why We Wrote This

Germany aims to help Europe lead toward a greener future, yet it still burns lots of coal. Now a young generation is demanding to see goals matched by actions.

As the election showed, Germany’s climate-conscious young generation finally has the political wind at its back: First-time voters overwhelmingly cast ballots for two smaller political parties, whose platforms promised bold climate action. Both parties are now set to join a new coalition government.

This comes on the heels of a historic decision in April by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, which ruled that the government’s existing climate action law was “insufficient” and “violate[s] the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are very young.”

Those complainants were mostly youth activists who are enraged that politicians and leaders were doing so little to protect the Earth, and hence their future. Their movement now attracts people of all backgrounds, not just youths like Ms. Sander who shun meat-eating and car ownership. “Grandmas and grandpas and parents and scientists and teachers are joining, because the climate crisis has gone so far people are dying and they’re now concerned about their children’s future,” she says.

There has been much to protest about Germany’s climate action, or lack thereof. Its clean energy transition has been fitful, with an abrupt phaseout of nuclear power and a reliance on coal that’s been tough to shake. Yet the future is looking brighter under a climate-focused coalition government at a time when German youths and consumers are engaged like never before with the goal of going green.

Compared to European peers that have installed more renewables, “in absolute numbers these countries are definitely ahead,” says Jörn C. Richstein, thematic lead of electricity markets research at the German Institute for Economic Research’s climate policy department. “But if you look back at where Germany was in the 1990s, we’ve made real progress.”

 

Moritz Richter/Courtesy of Joelle Sander
Climate activist Joelle Sander helped organize the Wiesbaden portion of the global climate strike event planned by Fridays for Future. She rallies attendees with a megaphone. Ms. Sander says the movement for climate action is spreading beyond youths to attract people of all backgrounds and ages.

Net-zero by 2045?

Germany was among the first major economies to pass a law to mandate a hard exit from coal. The government has also set a target of 2045 for net-zero output of greenhouse gases and a near-term target of cutting emissions by 65% by the end of this decade, compared with 1990 levels.

Still, its coal phaseout target of 2038 is much slower than that of France or the United Kingdom, the host of this week’s United Nations climate conference, which has urged countries to stop burning coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources.

And turning Germany’s words into action has so far been a challenge. To achieve a clean-energy transition it needs the right mix of renewables, buy-in from consumers to politicians and industry executives, and changes in the regulatory framework for carbon-intensive industries and for bringing renewable energies on board. All this in a country that plans to mothball its nuclear power stations by next year.

“It’s a tremendous task, and we have to do nearly everything possible in the coming years,” says Matthias Zelinger, head of the Competence Center Climate & Energy for VDMA, an engineering industry association.

Cutting Germany’s total emissions by 65% compared with 1990 levels by 2030 requires nothing less than a “fundamental restructuring of our energy system, international energy supply, building and vehicle stock, infrastructure, and large parts of industry,” according to a recent Federation of German Industries report. Investment in fossil-fuel related technologies must end, along with a faster stop to coal-fired power. All this would require additional public and private investment of about 860 billion euros by 2030 (nearly $1 trillion) or about 2.5% of Germany’s gross domestic product, the report found.

“That’s a lot of money,” says Mr. Zelinger. “On the other hand, it is less than we’ve invested in the merger of [post-1989] Germany, east and west. So it’s our generation’s project. It’s hard, but it’s not undoable. We have to be fast and efficient.”

Why progress is slow

Many experts mark Ms. Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster in Japan as the beginning of Germany’s energy transition. The previous year, she’d supported extending the working lives of nuclear plants. Her about-turn, which reflected public opinion on the perceived risk of nuclear power, delivered a boost to renewables like solar and wind. But Germany also became more reliant on coal and natural gas to generate electricity for its homes and factories because renewables didn’t ramp up fast enough.

This lack of progress is maddening for young activists like Ronja Weil, a student in Berlin who’s affiliated with Gerechtigkeitjetzt (Justice Now), a Berlin-based alliance of 27 initiatives that campaign for climate-friendly policies. “I think that actually the government does not execute climate protection at all. We have to change systematic factors and ask ourselves questions such as ‘How do we want to produce energy?’” says Ms. Weil.

Adding onshore wind turbines can be challenging: It takes 3 to 5 years for regulatory approval, so project developers often prefer offshore wind sites or look overseas. In 2018, Germany installed about 750 onshore wind turbines; even fewer were added in 2019 and 2020. Opposition from some citizen groups, whose members skew older than climate strikers, has stymied approvals. Opponents say wind turbines are eyesores and not the right renewable option.  

Solar and wind together generated more electricity than all the fossil fuel sources combined in 2020. But coal use has resurged this year amid a global spike in natural-gas prices and a fall in wind output.

“Do small things, [and] big things can be moved”

The April high court ruling was in response to several legal challenges filed mostly by young plaintiffs, including Luisa Neubauer, one of the national organizers of the Sept. 24 rallies. They alleged that Germany’s and the European Union’s commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement wouldn’t prevent future global warming and as a result violated their human rights since they would suffer the consequences in the future.

“The constitutional court ruled that society and politicians have to speed up the fight against climate change, and we have to tighten and accelerate measures quickly,” says Dirk Janssen, director of the North-Rhine Westphalia division of Friends of the Earth Germany.

In response to the ruling, Parliament agreed on deeper emissions cuts by 2030 and moved up its net-zero target to 2045, five years ahead of the EU. Industries are also making progress, rolling out pilot programs for decarbonizing even highly polluting sectors such as chemicals and cement, says Mr. Zelinger.

Michael Probst/AP
Steam comes out of the chimneys of the coal-fired power station in Niederaussem, Germany, Oct. 24, 2021. Germany's timetable to phase out coal-fired electric generation by 2038 is drawing criticism, inside and outside the country, as too slow. The path is difficult partly because Germany has focused on phasing out one prominent alternative: nuclear power.

“More and more industries are now even drawing up their own roadmaps on how to decarbonize,” he says. “And the new coalition government will go further.”

Changing the way progress is evaluated to include future measures will help this process, says Dr. Richstein. Take steel manufacturing, on which Germany’s renowned auto industry depends. Installing a low-carbon blast furnace is expensive, and can’t be done in stages. “You basically need to replace the whole thing at once and then you have a clean process. A lot of these sorts of binary decisions are needed across sectors, and in a lot of cases it’s single installations that account for most emissions in industrial processes. That’s why it’s good to track progress based on these early indicators where you say, how far are we in different sectors with replacing old with new processes?”

Germany can no longer ignore the consequences of global warming, says Mr. Janssen of Friends of the Earth Germany, given summer heat waves, drought-ravaged forests, and the deadly summer floods in 2021.

“People can see that climate change is here,” he says. “This means environmental NGOs are no longer fighting the fight alone. Germany’s climate movement today is a broad church, from civil disobedience groups to the more well-heeled, middle-class supporters. It’s the energy companies and politics that are way behind, so much so that we worry that the efforts to implement the energy transition may amount to too few, too late.”

Ms. Sander, the climate strike organizer, is hopeful for the new coalition that includes the Green Party, but worries that government will still move too slowly. She’s working to train more activists to bring even younger voices into the movement. “If 100 million people do small things, big things can be moved.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.