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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Youth Activists Win Stronger Climate Action in Germany

Air Date: Week of

Thousands rally across Cologne Germany during a Fridays for Future Climate strike. (Photo: Marco Verch, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

After a trial brought forth by youth climate activists, Germany's highest court recently ruled that present government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to protect future needs. At the same time, the German Green Party is leading in the polls. Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf is a governance expert for the Ecologic Institute based in Berlin and joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the support for strong climate action in Germany.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Young people have the human right to effective action to combat climate disruption, says the highest court in Germany. The German Constitutional Court recently ruled present government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55% below 1990 levels within this decade are insufficient to protect the future. The high court’s order for stronger climate action appears to reflect broad German public opinion, and polling shows the Green party may well lead the German government after the September elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel is retiring after sixteen years of shaping some of the world’s strongest climate policies. Trained as a chemist, her understanding of science has helped her lead a series of German government coalitions committed to climate action. But deepening awareness of the climate emergency is raising stakes on climate even further in German politics. Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf is a governance expert for the Ecologic Institute based in Berlin, and he joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth!

OHLENDORF: Good to talk to you.

CURWOOD: So recently Germany's high court rule that a law passed in 2019 there to protect the climate is insufficient to protect future generations. What impact does that have now on the political mix there in Germany?

In Munich, Fridays for Future organizes a human chain and a petition delivery to Siemens Energy to stop coal mining in Australia. (Photo: Zack Helwa, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

OHLENDORF: It has a huge impact on Germany's climate policies. And you can see that the German climate law that you just mentioned, will be revised. And the Ministry of Environment proposed to scale up Germany's reduction target from currently 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 to 65. There will also be a target for climate neutrality, not by 2050, but by 2045. So that is already a drastic change. And on top of that, the state of Bavaria, which is one of the largest German bundeslander or states, is also one of the most conservative, if not the most conservative states, has voted to reach climate neutrality by 2014 rather than 2015. And that was really the aftermath of that court decision. So the court decision in fact, has a big impact. To what extent it has an impact on the politics and the election campaign, we will see. But I mean, it's just like the official blessing to much more climate policies. And it's just the official seal, if you like, for what the greens have been advocating, and environmental NGOs have been advocating for a very long time. And I think it's important to understand that the Constitutional Court in Germany is not only the highest court in the country, it's also one of the most respected institutions in the country. So it really has a lot of authority, not only in terms of law, but also in terms of this is one of the most trusted institutions in Germany and if they have the statement, if they make this verdict, it matters to many people.

CURWOOD: There's been litigation here in the United States, in the federal courts to try to say that federal policy isn't protecting the future of young people well enough, that has not succeeded in the courts. What is it about Germany that in fact, young people could sue and get a ruling saying that yeah, present climate policy isn't protecting our futures and the government needs to do more?

OHLENDORF: Well, it's the procedural structure of that court, and the German law, every single citizen is entitled to go to the Constitutional Court, claiming that he or she has been violated in his or her constitutional rights. The main argument of the court was the human rights in basic freedoms of future generations. The court ruled that if we use up a very large chunk of remaining emissions before 2030, then there will be very little left for future generations, meaning their freedoms to do all kinds of different things would be infringed. And that is why the court ruled that there should be a target after 2030. That is important to understand the court did not rule that the current 2030 target would be unconstitutional. The court said it is unconstitutional to leave so little emissions remaining after 2030 for future generations. So that was the main argument of the court.

Annalena Baerbock is a German politician serving as a co-leader of Alliance 90/The Greens and candidate for the chancellor for Germany in the 2021 elections. (Photo: LDK Dortmund, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: The Christian Democratic Party has governed Germany for much of the last 16 years under the leadership of Angela Merkel. But now as she has said that she's stepping away the Green Party is leading in the polls, what's going on?

OHLENDORF: The greens and the Christian Democrats, they were actually neck to neck more or less last year, before COVID hit the country. And then COVID hit the country. And that was, I think the main reason why the Christian Democrats were increasing their shares from the post drastically. So they went from about 27 - 28% at the time, to 40%. And that was because they were trusted as the solid party in government, who has a long history of managing the country. And now this image of being the natural party of government that is changing because Germany is not handling the COVID crisis as efficiently anymore as it did during the first wave. And lots of people are frustrated how vaccination is being rolled out how testing has worked. I mean, it's it has been improving, but I mean, it has not been managed well at the beginning. And now we're looking at the lockdown in the country for almost six months now. So a lot of people are really frustrated, and they put the blame on the leading party, which are the Christian Democrats and that was the main reason why they're going down and the greens are going up.

CURWOOD: So there's been some intense squabbling now between the Social Democrats in the Christian Democrats recently to what extent do you think that is helping the Green Party?

OHLENDORF: I think what is helping the Green Party are various things. I mean, one is that this coalition, the coalition of the Christian Democrats, and the Social Democrats, appears to be worn out. They have been in power for most of last 16 years. And I think there is a sentiment in a pretty large part of population, there should be a change, there should be something new. And if you look at the candidates, I mean, the Christian Democrats that is Armin Laschet, who is from North Rhine Westphalia is a lawyer on the one hand you have Olaf Scholz, who's leading, who’s candidate for Chancellor who Social Democrat who is also a lawyer. And then on the other hand, you have Annalena Baerbock, who is 40 years old, who is not a lawyer, who is a fresh face, only still five months to go to the election. That's a long time. But if that sentiment of one change is lasting, I think the Greens have a fair chance to win the elections here, which would be truly historical.

Angela Merkel has been serving as the chancellor of Germany since 2015. She has been nicknamed as the “Climate Chancellor” for her work in keeping with Germany’s emission goals. (Photo: Arno Mikkor, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Niels before you go, the climate talks a UN climate talks, the Conference of the Parties is coming up in November in Scotland. How will the then September federal elections in Germany do you think influence your country's climate goals and ambitions during those negotiations?

OHLENDORF: That is hard to tell at this point, because we don't know the composition of the next government. But I think it's the most likely scenario that the Greens will be member of the next government. But even without them and I think that's really important to understand. It's the country as a whole that has embraced climate to a new level, I would say. So but what I find really interesting is that we are in the midst of a deep economic crisis. I mean, Germany has not hit as bad as other EU countries. But still, unemployment has gone up, public debt has increased drastically. So there is an impact that COVID had on our country and quite a bit actually. And yet, despite that, we see a very broad agreement on increasing our climate ambition. And I think that is really something to be noted that in the midst of an economic crisis, we decided to do more, because we believe it makes economic sense.

CURWOOD: Niels Meyer Ohlendorf is the head of international and European Governance for the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. Thank you so much for taking the time with us.

OHLENDORF: Thank you so much, Steve. pleasure talking to you.



DW | “'German Law is Partly Unconstitutional, Top Court Rules”

The Guardian | “'Polls put German Green Party in Lead Five Months Before Election”

Clean Energy Wire | “'Polls Reveal Citizen Support for Climate Action and Energy Transition”


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