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‘Exclamation mark for climate protection’: How Germany is reacting to top court’s landmark ruling

Germany's highest court ruled Thursday that the government's flagship climate protection plan was "insufficient", a major setback for Angela Merkel's right-left coalition in an election year when environmental issues are expected to take centre stage.

'Exclamation mark for climate protection': How Germany is reacting to top court's landmark ruling
Protesters outside of Germany's top court in Karlsruhe with signs for 'Climate Protection now!" before the decision was made on Thursday. Photo: DPA

Partially upholding a series of claims by environmentalists and young people, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that Berlin’s current goal of reducing CO2 emissions to 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 was “incompatible with fundamental rights”.

The current measures “violate the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young” because they “irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030”, the court ruled.

READ ALSO: Top German court finds government’s climate plan ‘insufficient’

It argued that while the state had not violated its duty to protect citizens against climate change, the government had nonetheless not set out the timeline for further emissions reductions in enough detail.

Assessing that the risk of “serious burdens” being put on generations beyond 2030 as significant, the court called on Berlin to “at the very least determine the size of the annual emission amounts to be set for periods after 2030”.

Nine young claimants

Besides an emissions target for 2030, Germany’s new climate change law introduced by Merkel’s government in 2019 includes a range of policies, including incentivising renewable energies, expanding electric car infrastructure and carbon trading.

The law was passed in order to comply with the 2016 Paris Agreement, under which countries aim to keep the global temperature increase to under two degrees Celsius, and ideally closer to 1.5 degrees, by 2050.

Germany said last month it had met its annual climate goals set out by the law in 2020, in part due to a reduction of activity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet activists have long argued that the law does not go far enough, prompting a series of legal claims against the government to toughen the measures.

Supported by Greenpeace and German Fridays for Future activist Luisa Neubauer, the claimants included a group of nine young Germans whose families’ agricultural or sustainable tourism businesses have been threatened by heatwaves and floods.

“We have won! Climate protection is not a nice-to-have, it’s a fundamental right,” tweeted Neubauer, 25, in reaction to the ruling.

Green surge

The government also appeared to welcome the ruling, with conservative Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier calling it an “epochal” decision for “climate protection and young peoples’ rights”, which would also give “planning security to business”.

Environment Minister Svenja Schulze also said the decision was an “exclamation mark for climate protection”.

Yet the decision in fact heaps further pressure on the government at a time when the environmentalist Green Party has taken a surprise lead in the polls ahead of September’s general elections.

Several recent polls have shown the Greens as the most popular party, ahead of both Merkel’s conservatives and their centre-left coalition partners SPD.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

If the party can hold their lead, then their candidate Annalena Baerbock could become Germany’s first ever Green chancellor in the autumn.

Armin Laschet, the candidate for Merkel’s CDU party, has meanwhile been accused of neglecting environmental policies.

“It’s not enough to see the environment as mere decoration, it is a central issue,” said Laschet’s Bavarian rival Markus Söder amid a bitter battle for the conservative nomination earlier this month.

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ENVIRONMENT

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.

READ ALSO: 

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.

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