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Climate crisis

Germany’s path to net-zero emissions

by Hans Dembowski

In brief

Concentrated solar power can be used to produce eco-friendly hydrogen, which can then be traded internationally: Morocco’s Noor III was installed in Quarzazate with financial support from Germany’s KFW development bank.

Concentrated solar power can be used to produce eco-friendly hydrogen, which can then be traded internationally: Morocco’s Noor III was installed in Quarzazate with financial support from Germany’s KFW development bank.

While no one can say how exactly voters will decide in Germany’s general election in September, we know quite precisely what the next Federal Government must do in the next four years for the country to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. The agenda is spelled out in a recent high-profile publication.

The German Council for Sustainable Development (Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung), an institution that gives advice to the Federal Government, and Leopoldina, Germany’s National Academy of Sciences, joined forces for this purpose. Their joint paper “Klima­neutralität” (“Climate neutrality”) was launched in early June. An English translation will be made available soon.

The current Federal Government recently passed a law according to which net-zero emissions must be German reality by 2045. The Constitutional Court had forced it to step up its ambition. Now, Leopoldina and the Sustainability Council spell out how that can be done. The core messages are that “the scarcest resource is time” and that “systemic action” is urgently needed accordingly. Systemic action means crosscutting measures in all economic sectors and fields of policy-making as well as all levels of government – from the supranational European Union to small municipalities.

The publication’s point is that fast decarbonisation is possible, but only if certain choices are made soon. For example, there simply is no time to develop new technologies. The transformation must be achieved with options available today. In the energy sector, that basically means wind power and photovoltaic in Germany. Hydrogen can be produced to store energy, but it is only green if it is produced with renewables. Given that the capacity for wind power and photovoltaic in Germany are too limited to power manufacturing, it will be necessary to import green hydrogen from abroad. This need, in turn, has implications for foreign relations, trade policy and development cooperation.

The authors do a very good job of showing that the range of policy-actions choices for achieving climate neutrality in 25 years is quite narrow. They argue that humankind needs a circular economy which does not depend on ever-increasing extraction of natural resources, but reuses and recycles metals and minerals. Getting there requires legislation in the fields of waste management, commodities markets, industrial licencing and international trade. Tax law must set appropriate incentives more­over. These are areas policymakers have  considered separately. However, coherent legislation is not enough, according to Leopoldina and the Sustainability Council, it must also be technically sound and implemented competently. On top of all that, new infrastructure is needed, some of which will have to be built and managed by state agencies.

As the experts acknowledge, government action alone cannot achieve the change needed. The strategy they propose therefore includes awareness raising and inviting people to become pioneers of the transformation, which must be balanced fairly so no community feels left behind. At the same time, the European Green Deal must be implemented stringently in Germany.

The authors further insist that:

  • private capital must be mobilised large-scale for the transformation,
  • about 50 % of industrial facilities in Germany require reinvestment in the next decade, and it must be geared to sustainability, and
  • transport, buildings and land use must undergo fundamental change.

This agenda is daunting, as its authors concede. It is not a wish list of romantic environmentalists, however, it is what Germany’s National Academy of Sciences and the Sustainabilty Council consider necessary. They insist, moreover, the price of non-action would exceed the transformation costs due to massive damage and disruption. Grasping eco-friendly business opportunities, moreover, can safeguard Germany’s industrial competitiveness.

Principles for development policy

Considerations articulated by the top leaders of the German Development Institute in May point in a similar direction. Anna-Katharina Hornidge (director) and Imme Scholz (her deputy), spelled out several guidelines on the Institute’s website. They insist that development policy must be geared to sustainability and promote every human being’s right to self-determination. These principles are enshrined in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and must guide German development policy accordingly.

The two scholars write that the perspective must be global. Moreover, development is not an automatic consequence of economic growth. They speak of a cross-scalar, multi-sectoral mandate that spans policy fields at national and international levels. Moreover, the protection and provision of global public goods is said to be essential. It will depend on planetary perspectives as well as dialogue with local communities. Accordingly, the two authors want Germany’s international development policy to focus on multilateral cooperation in order to shape multilateral standards and regulations.

It is not a coincidence that these principles fit in well with the paper published by Leopoldina and the Sustainability Council. Both papers are reality based, after all. Moreover, Imme Scholz is not only the depu­ty leader of the German Development Institute, but also the vice chair of the Sustainability Council (full disclosure: she is also a member of D+C/E+Z’s advisory board). 


German Council for Sustainable Development and Leopoldina, 2021: Climate neutrality – Options for setting the right course and ambitious delivery:

Hornidge, A. K., and Scholz, I., 2021: Seven principles to guide German development policy.

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.