German court rejects farmers’ legal challenge over Merkel climate policy

A Berlin court on Thursday threw out a case brought by three farmers against Chancellor Angela Merkel's government over its failure to meet climate protection targets, hyped by campaigners as the first such legal challenge in Germany.

German court rejects farmers' legal challenge over Merkel climate policy
A 'change politics instead of climate' sign outside the Berlin court on Thursday. Photo: DPA

After the government admitted it would fail to meet its own and EU greenhouse gas reduction goals for 2020, the would-be plaintiffs – farmers backed by environmental group Greenpeace– had tried to sue to force corrective action.

They said the government was breaking the law and infringing on their fundamental rights by damaging their crops.

A crowd of around 30 Greenpeace activists rallied outside the courthouse as the hearing got underway in the morning.

But judges found there was “no visible legal basis that would create an obligation for the federal government to act” if they heard the case, the Berlin administrative court said in a statement.

The original cabinet decisions to set the climate targets were not legally binding, they said, while EU commitments could be met in other ways like participating in the bloc-wide emissions trading scheme.

Neither did damage from heat, droughts and torrential rains to the farmers' crops and livestock infringe on their property rights guaranteed under Germany's constitution, the judges found.

Lawmakers and government “have scope to evaluate, judge and make policy concerning obligations to protect fundamental rights that is subject only to limited control by the courts,” they said, appearing to agree with the  government's arguments.

“Plaintiffs did not demonstrate that the federal government's measures were completely inappropriate and inadequate” the court added.

READ ALSO: 'It can't go on like this' German farmers take German government to court over climate change

Existential threat

The farmers, a  fruit-grower and two livestock farmers, cited cattle stressed by heatwaves and huge crop losses due to extreme weather swings as grounds for action.

“We feel that our livelihoods are threatened. We are afraid that if we don't do something, the fruit farm won't survive,” co-plaintiff Franziska Blohm, whose family manages an organic operation near Hamburg, told AFP ahead of the hearing.

The aim of the exercise is not to obtain “damages or anything similar,” she stressed.

Merkel's government last year admitted it would fall short of its climate target of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in Germany by 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

Rather, it expected to achieve only 32 percent in reductions compared to 1990.

With climate shooting up the political agenda after two blistering summers and a wave of Fridays for Future student strikes, Berlin has since rolled out a new environmental protection package, with Merkel pledging that Germany should be climate neutral by 2050.

IN PICTURES: Germany takes to the streets in global climate strike

But the plan worth at least €100 billion by 2030 has been immediately slammed as unambitious by scientists and environmentalists alike.

'Can't go on like this'

Another of the plaintiffs, Heiner Leutke Schwienhorst, has run his dairy farm at Vetschau around 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Berlin for three decades.

He said it was time to make the government take “political accountability”.

Last year's record drought, unseen in Germany since 1911, was “simply frightening,” he said.

Up to half of his livestock feed crop was lost, forcing him to buy 400 bales of hay.

Last year's dry spell stretched from late spring well into winter, even halting water traffic across the country, including on the Rhine river, one of Europe's busiest commercial arteries.

With temperatures also pushing well past 35C in the summer, farmers across Germany reported huge crop losses.

The Blohm family said half of its crops were lost because of the unusually hot summer last year.

It led to “burns on trees, on apples, on leaves,” said Claus Blohm.

“Not only that, the last year was decisive in how much fruit the trees could bear this year. And they were under so much stress that we had a crop failure of 50 percent. It just can't go on like this.”

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UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote ‘of a century’

Tens of thousands of climate activists including Greta Thunberg descended on German cities Friday ahead of the weekend general election to crank up the pressure on the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel.

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote 'of a century'
Greta Thunberg and other climate activists in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Speaking at a rally in front of the Reichstag parliament building in the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Thunberg told cheering Fridays for Future youth supporters that they needed to hold Germany’s political leaders to account past election day.

“It is clearer than ever that no political party is doing close to enough… not even their proposed commitments are close to being in line with what would be needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement,” on curbing climate change, she said.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets.”

As Germany’s top parties hold final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Fridays for Future youth marches claim the political class has let down the younger generation.

“The political parties haven’t taken the climate catastrophe seriously enough,” Luisa Neubauer, who runs the group’s German chapter, said.

She said Germany, as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, had an outsize responsibility to set an example, with time running out to reverse destructive trends.

“That is why we are calling this the election of a century,” she said.

The race has boiled down to a two-way contest between Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the moderate finance minister, and Armin Laschet from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

Polls give Scholz a small lead of about 26 percent over Laschet at around 22 percent, with the candidate from the ecologist Greens, Annalena Baerbock, trailing in the mid-teens.

Despite the urgency of the climate issue for a majority of Germans, particularly in the aftermath of deadly floods in the west of the country in July, this has failed to translate into strong support for the relatively inexperienced Baerbock.

She told Die Welt newspaper that she hoped Friday’s rally would give her party “tailwinds” heading into the vote. “The next government has to be a climate government – that will only work with a strong Green party.”   

More than 400 “climate strikes” are planned across Germany, with the Swedish Thunberg, who inspired the movement, expected to speak outside the Reichstag parliament building.

Thousands gathered on the lawn there from late morning bearing signs reading “Climate now, homework later”, “It’s our future” and simply “Vote”.

“Climate is an important issue and if this continues things are going to get worse and worse,” 14-year-old pupil Louise Herr told AFP.

Gathering under the banners “We are young and need the world!” and “Everything for the climate”, the activists are arguing that “climate crisis is this century’s biggest problem”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

 ‘Unfair burden’

The activists will be part of a global climate strike in more than 1,000 communities around the world, Fridays for Future said.

Their central demand is to limit the warming of the Earth to maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The Paris agreement set a goal of reducing global warming by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration to go further and cap the rise to 1.5 Celsius.

Despite Merkel’s vocal support of climate protection measures, Germany has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet its emission reduction targets under the pact.

In a landmark ruling in April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s plans to curb CO2 emissions “insufficient” to meet the targets of the Paris agreement and placed an “unfair burden” on future generations.

The Fridays for Future movement launched global school strikes more than two years ago arguing that time was running out to stop irreversible damage from the warming of the planet.

Demonstrators take to the streets in Berlin to call for urgent climate action. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Luca Bruno

In September 2019, it drew huge crowds in cities and towns around the world including 1.4 million protesters in Germany, according to organisers.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on its weekly rallies but the election campaign in Europe’s top economy has revitalised the

“The climate crisis cannot be solved through party politics alone,” Thunberg told reporters ahead of her appearance in Berlin.

“We can’t just vote for change, we also have to be active democratic citizens and go out on the streets and demand action.”


Greens as junior partner?

Around 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls on Sunday and most voters cite climate protection among their top priorities.

All three leading parties have said they aim to implement a climate protection agenda if elected, with the Greens presenting the most ambitious package of measures.

However the Fridays for Future activists have said even the Greens’ official programme falls short of what is needed to stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The Greens want to end coal energy use by 2030 instead of the current 2038. They also want the production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While the party is expected to fall far short of its ambition to win the election Sunday and place Baerbock in the chancellery, polls indicate it has a good chance of joining a ruling coalition as a junior partner under Scholz or Laschet.

By Deborah Cole