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German top court orders government to set post-2030 climate goals

Wind turbines near Halle, central Germany.
Wind turbines near Halle, central Germany.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

Germany's top court ruled Thursday that the country's government has to set clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2030, arguing that current legislation doesn't go far enough in ensuring that climate change is limited to acceptable levels.

Several individuals from Germany and elsewhere, backed by environmental groups, had filed four complaints to the Constitutional Court arguing that their rights were impinged by the lack of sufficient targets beyond the next decade.

Germany, like other European Union countries, aims to cut emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Legislation passed in 2019 set specific targets for sectors such as housing and transport for that period, but not for the long-term goal of cutting emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050.

"The regulations irreversibly pushed a very high burden of emissions reduction into the period after 2030," judges said in their ruling.

They cited the Paris accord goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally 1.5 C by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times.

Germany has managed to cut its annual emissions from the equivalent of 1.25 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 1990 to about 740 million tons last year — a reduction of more than 40 per cent.

The current target would require cuts of 178 million tons by 2030, but a reduction of 281 million tons in each of the following decades.

Judges said it would be wrong to allow one generation “to use up large parts of the CO2 budget with a comparatively mild reduction burden, if that simultaneously means following generations are left with a radical reduction burden and their lives are exposed to comprehensive limits to freedom.”

The court ordered the government to come up with new targets from 2030 onward by the end of next year.

A groundbreaking verdict

Lawyer Felix Ekardt, who brought one of the cases, says the verdict was “groundbreaking” for Germany.

“Germany’s climate policy will need to be massively adjusted,” he says.

Climate campaigners expressed delight at the verdict.

“It's an incredibly good day for hundreds of thousands of young people,” says climate activist Luisa Neubauer, who was one of the plaintiffs.

Germany is holding federal elections in September. The environmentalist Greens party, which has called for tougher emissions reduction targets, is currently leading in several polls.

Annalena Baerbock, the Greens' candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, called for “concrete action, here and now.”

Her party wants to double the rate by which wind parks, solar farms and other sources of renewable energy sources are expanded over the coming five years, ban the sale of new combustion engine vehicles from 2030, bring forward the deadline to end coal use and set additional emissions targets after 2030, she said.

The cases in Germany are part of a global effort by climate activists to force governments to take urgent action to tackle climate change.

Among the first successful cases was brought in the Netherlands, where the Supreme Court two years ago confirmed a ruling requiring the government to cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 from benchmark 1990 levels.