Opinions - 22.12.2022 - 08:30 

It’s time for a change in Germany’s climate strategy

Germany’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions domestically are a drop in the ocean: Germany is responsible for a mere two percent of global carbon emissions yet should focus on empowering a global coalition for sustainable prosperity. By Jochen Andritzky.

The public debate on climate policies in Germany has been dominated by the idea that Germany needs to become carbon neutral – even Germany’s highest court backed this objective in a landmark ruling last year. Knowing that Germany’s emissions are a rather small share of global emissions, achieving this won’t keep mother earth cool. Yet, by being a frontrunner, Germany could set an example for the green transition and motivate other countries to follow.

But would anyone like to follow Germany’s fate? An expensive subsidy-driven energy policy focused excessively on renewables rather than resilience. The resulting vulnerability of Germany’s energy system was painfully exposed when gas supplies from Russia stopped, putting social peace in Germany at risk. Germany’s industrial lobby is stoking fears of deindustrialization.

Splitting society

And despite climate action being mainstream in the political debate for years, Germany is facing a wave of climate activism that is starting to split the society. By blocking roads and an airport and tossing potato pap at a Claude Monet painting, activists signal that there should be no limit to radical action: Desperate times call for desperate measures. 

The resulting brouhaha in the media crowds out the more relevant debate: How does Germany want to tackle global climate change? The consensus on limiting global warming is too often mistaken for a consensus on how to reach it. 

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has laid out different pathways how to reach the 1.5-degree target (IPCC 2018). In Germany, neither a consensus nor an explicit debate exists on whether to meet the target through behavioral change and deindustrialization or through innovation, including an elevated role of carbon capture.

Lack of forethought brings higher costs

The lack of vision becomes most apparent in the current energy crisis. The crisis imposed a cost shock, in particular for natural gas, that is certainly more sudden and more severe than the increase envisioned under carbon trading schemes. 

There was sufficient evidence Germans are not ready to stomach higher costs for energy, be it due to climate policies or an external shock like war. In 2021, an Allensbach survey found that 60 percent of Germans agree that the climate needs to be protected. However, only 6 percent said they are willing to accept significantly higher prices for energy. The federal government allowed months to pass, then rushed to action with a €200 billion or 6 percent of GDP “defense shield” to subsidize energy across the board.

This is a missed opportunity out of a lack of foresight. The crisis could have focused the debate on how to support lower middle-income households in the climate transition, how to trigger innovation, and how to make the corporate sector more flexible to adapt towards climate neutrality. Instead, an ideologic fight over nuclear power grabbed headlines, fitting the picture of the inability to forge consensus in Germany through informed debate.

Renewing the call to action

To arrive at a vision, Germany needs to remind itself how it can best help to tackle the global challenge of climate change. Neither is Germany large enough to affect the climate, nor will it serve as role model for other countries when its expensive climate transformation ends in loss of prosperity and social divide.

What should Germany do instead? Germany’s contribution should be linked to its comparative strengths at global level. These are innovation, export power, and its weight in international diplomacy.

If Germany is able to develop new technologies and business models for systemic change in areas such as energy generation, mobility, or industrial processes, it helps the climate a lot as the world can adopt these innovations. In addition, it should continue to push for a large “climate club” of countries that includes the main polluters.

A debate on Germany’s vision of its role in global climate protection is urgently needed. As of now, Germany is surely not a role model for other countries to follow. The whatever-it-takes message of climate activists does not help with that either.

The author Jochen Andritzky is lecturer at HSG and the co-founder of the "Zukunft-Fabrik.2050" thinktank that was launched by HSG alumnae and alumni.

Image: / press photo Museum action in Potsdam

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