Can the Paris Agreement make history for Germany?


Picture of Annalena Baerbock
Annalena Baerbock

French President François Hollande was correct when he said “L’histoire arrive, l’histoire est là” at the conclusion of the Climate Change Conference on 12 December in Paris. Both the conference and the decisions adopted there could be historic. After twenty years of negotiations, 195 states have made a unanimous and legally-binding commitment to undertake everything possible to limit global warming to well below 2°C, with an aspiration of 1.5°C. In addition, the Paris conference sent the signal that the world is abandoning fossil-based energies.

Yet the conference will only be truly historic if it is adequately fleshed out at local level, and the Paris Agreement has set out a strict timetable for this. The states only have until 2019 to present plans for boosting their efforts to combat climate change. This also applies to Germany, but now that the congratulations have ebbed, what we are witnessing from the Federal Government is not ambition and zeal but resounding silence. It took calls from the Opposition to ensure that a debate even took place in the Bundestag on following through with the climate commitments. Only the Environment Minister then took the time to be present; the ministers for economic affairs and energy, for transport and for agriculture did not bother to come. This is despite the fact that each of their ministries is central to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and will be responsible for translating its goals into action.

What we are witnessing from the Federal Government is not ambition and zeal but resounding silence

To begin, the 2°C deal means that Sigmar Gabriel, as Energy Minister, must phase-out of coal. This requires binding carbon budgets for all fossil-fired power plants and a ban on new opencast lignite mines. But this will not happen unless Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks can get things moving, as all that yet exists is a backroom deal with companies to close power stations that are over 40 years old and due to be shut down in any case. Hendricks is currently emphasising that phasing out coal is possible over the next 20-25 years, but not absolutely necessary. With such an attitude, the Federal Government is endangering the relative strength of its negotiating card in Paris, the Energiewende (transformation of the energy system). This is because, in contrast to the failed conference in Copenhagen, all the world’s states have also now recognised that growth and climate protection are not irreconcilable. Whilst renewable energies make up slightly more than 27% of the German electricity mix, China has a proportion of over 30%, Italy around 40% and New Zealand and Costa Rica over 80%. Without a new push from Hendricks, Germany’s flagship climate policy risks falling well behind.

Next, Gabriel as economics minister must finally stop financing coal outside Germany. Despite the stricter conditions now in place, the KfW Ipex-Bank, a subsidiary of the state-owned KfW, is still financing coal projects abroad, and coal export deals are being buttressed by state guarantees. In this way, the Federal Government is undermining support for the expansion of renewable energies in Africa, which it also importantly committed itself to in Paris.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble must also take immediate action. Minister Hendricks rightly stressed in Paris that the conference was “a very clear signal” to investors. The Allianz insurance group had already decided in the future to invest mainly in wind instead of coal, oil and gas. Schäuble must follow this example and similarly end federal investments in fossil fuels.

Sigmar Gabriel as economics minister must finally stop financing coal outside Germany

In Paris, war was not declared just on carbon dioxide. The greenhouse gas neutrality agreed also encompasses methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, which are generated through agriculture and transport. Both sectors must therefore be reformed and made compatible with the Paris Agreement. Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt must focus on reducing mass livestock production, food waste and over-fertilisation as well as achieving a clear definition of climate-friendly farming that rules out environmentally-questionable practices. The mandate for Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt is even more clear. It became plain during the Paris talks that the days of combustion engines running on fossil fuels are numbered. It is only a question of time until the first megacity in China decides because of air pollution to only allow electric cars. On the other side of the globe, in Norway, these vehicles already make up 17% of newly-registered cars. Radical climate protection legislation in Germany – the land of inventors, engineers and patents – would provide a lifeline for the German car industry in the aftermath of the emissions cheating scandal.

Goethe said that the value of history lies in the enthusiasm it produces. If the Paris Agreement is to take on the historic dimension it claims, the German Federal Government must awaken a new enthusiasm for climate protection during the remainder of the cabinet’s term. Only in this way can Germany take up its place in the environmental and economic history of the 21st Century.

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