Emissions in Germany sink to lowest level in 30 years thanks to pandemic

Germany said Tuesday it had met its national climate goal for 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic helped to drive the biggest reduction in emissions for three decades in Europe's biggest economy.

Emissions in Germany sink to lowest level in 30 years thanks to pandemic
A coal plant in Hohenhameln, Lower Saxony in summer 2020. Photo: DPA

Greenhouse gas emissions last year were around 41 percent lower than 1990 levels, the biggest yearly decline in more than three decades, the environment minister said.

“It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic has fuelled the reduction in emissions,” Svenja Schulze told reporters, warning there was “no reason to relax”.

“Catastrophes and economic crises cannot replace sensible climate policy and sustainable restructuring of our economy,” she added.

The annual figures published Tuesday showed that Germany had emitted 739 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020, a reduction of 70 million tonnes on 2019 levels.

READ ALSO: Five ways Germany makes you greener (without even noticing)

There were significant reductions in key areas.

With flights grounded and shops shuttered as governments scrambled to stop contagion of the coronavirus, emissions in the transport sector slumped 11.4 percent and those from the energy sector fell by 14.5 percent.

The only sector to miss its 2020 targets was buildings, with Schulze noting that people had spent more time at home with the heating on during the pandemic.

The Federal Environment Office (UBA), which is responsible for the annual figures, said that around a third of the emissions reductions could be put down to “the coronavirus effect”, while the rest were the result of policy and structural changes.

Svenja Schulze (r, SPD) holds up Germany’s climate balance sheet for 2020, with UBA president Dirk Messner. Photo: DPA

“I was worried that climate protection might be neglected in the pandemic, but thankfully that hasn’t proved to be the case,” said UBA president Dirk Messner.

2020 was the first year since the introduction of Germany’s new climate change law in late 2019.
Criticised by environmental activists and industry lobbyists alike, the sweeping policy package aims to reduce Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

It includes a range of policies, including incentivising renewable energies, expanding electric car infrastructure and carbon trading.

Germany began 2021 by shutting down a coal-fired power plant near Cologne as part of its phaseout of coal by 2038 and slapping a CO2 price on transport.

From January 1st, 2021, the government is charging 25 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions released by the transport and heating sectors.

READ ALSO: Germany rings in 2021 with CO2 tax, coal phase out

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Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction

Campaigners began a legal challenge against five German regions on Monday to force them to take stronger action on climate change, emboldened by a landmark recent court ruling in favour of environmental protection.

Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction
Demonstrators from the Fridays for Future movement protest in Gießen, Hesse, with a sign saying "No wishy-washy, no climate lashing". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

The plaintiffs are basing their case on a sensational verdict by Germany’s constitutional court in April which found that Germany’s plans to curb CO2 emissions were insufficient to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement and placed an unfair burden on future generations.

In a major win for activists, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal government then brought forward its date for carbon neutrality by five years to 2045, and raised its 2030 target for greenhouse gas reductions.


On Monday, 16 children and young adults began proceedings against the regions of Hesse, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saarland, with support of environmental NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH).

They are charging that none of the states targeted by the legal action have passed sufficiently strong climate legislation at the local level, according to DUH.

“The federal government can’t succeed on its own,” lead lawyer Remo Klinger said in a press conference, highlighting state competence in the area of transport.

DUH worked closely together with the youth climate movement Fridays For Future to find activists willing to front the challenges, the group said.

Seventeen-year-old plaintiff Alena Hochstadt said the western state of Hesse, known for its Frankfurt banking hub, had always been her home but she feared having “no future here”.

Concern about the risk of “floods, storms and droughts” led her and other campaigners to seek “a legal basis for binding climate protection”.

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

Hesse’s ministers for climate and the economy said they were “surprised” by the announcement.

“DUH clearly has not yet understood that we in Hesse are well ahead,” Priska Hinz and Tarek Al-Wazir said in a joint statement, drawing attention to an energy future law from 2012, before the Paris climate agreement.

In July, DUH-supported activists took the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Brandenburg to court on similar grounds.