Higher fuel costs and Autobahn speed limit: How can Germany go green?

Drastic measures are needed to achieve Germany’s climate targets for transport, according to the country's Environment Agency. Will car-loving Germany take action?

Higher fuel costs and Autobahn speed limit: How can Germany go green?
Photo: DPA

An internal paper from the agency, seen by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, details what Germany would have to do in the transport sector to protect the climate.

The paper, which was drafted in June when the government was preparing its climate package but never became public, says the government would have to get rid of the commuter allowance and increase the price of fuel, among other measures.

According to the study, the tax on diesel – which has so far been tax-privileged – would have to rise by 70 cents to €1.19 per litre by 2030, while petrol should become 47 cents more expensive. 

In addition, the toll imposed on trucks (LKW Maut) would have to rise sharply – and a speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour would have to be introduced on the Autobahn, a move that would be extremely controversial in car-loving Germany.

READ ALSO: How our readers feel about imposing a speed limit on Germany's Autobahn

The newspaper said the agency wants the Transport Ministry to draw up concrete proposals. In principle, however, the measures from the report are “suitable for achieving the climate targets in the transport sector”, a spokesman from the Environment Agency said.

Worst impact on environment

Of all Germany's sectors, transport has the worst climate record. While emissions have fallen since 1990 in the industrial, agriculture and construction sectors, they have been stagnating in transport.

The number of cars has increased, while freight traffic on the roads and the number of flights have also gone up.

Photo: DPA

According to plans by the German government, climate-damaging emissions from traffic are to be reduced to 98 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030. At current rates emissions will stand at about 160 million tonnes in that year.

READ ALSO: 'The future is already here': How climate change is affecting Germany

The government wants to achieve this by promoting electric cars and alternative fuels. Rail travel is also to become cheaper, and the tax on airline tickets is to rise.

A gradual increase in the CO2 price will initially raise the price of fuel by three cents per litre. What exactly this will achieve for the climate is currently being calculated, but results are not expected until the beginning of the new year.

But according to the highest German environmental authority, this will by no means be enough.

“According to our estimates, there remains a climate protection gap of 20 to 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gases,” said Maria Krautzberger, head of the authority.

Climate package speed bumps

The government's “climate package”, a collection of four bills with policies including increases to the cost of air travel and the introduction of a carbon pricing system, was supposed to come into force at the beginning of next year.

However, it hit the rocks last week in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, amid fears over financing and criticisms that it did not go far enough.

READ ALSO: What does Germany's planned climate protection package mean for you?

Representatives from Germany's federal states rejected proposals for a series of tax reforms, including a reduction in VAT on train tickets and temporary tax exemptions for the restoration of buildings.

Amid fears that the federal states would have to make up the lost revenues themselves, the upper house refused to pass the bill, which will now be subject to negotiations between the two chambers.

Other elements of the climate package were passed successfully on Friday.

READ ALSO: Tens of thousands of people in Germany rally against climate change

A surcharge on plane journeys of up to 2500 kilometres will be hiked by 74 percent to €13, while for longer journeys it will be raised to up to €60.

The carbon tax, which would later be incorporated into an EU emissions trading system, was also passed.

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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