On April 29, the German Constitutional Court published its decision demanding changes to Germany’s climate law, ruling it partly unconstitutional due to the way in which it places too much of the burden to implement “painful reduction” with regard to emissions on future generations.
In the words of the Court, “the provisions of the Federal Climate Change Act (…) governing national climate targets and the annual emission amounts allowed until 2030 are incompatible with fundamental rights insofar as they lack sufficient specifications for further emission reductions from 2031 onwards.” However, the Court also pointed out that the other complaints brought forward, such as the one which argued that the government had breached its obligations to protect the complainants against the dangers of climate change, had been rejected.
The ruling has been welcomed by climate activists, such as Luisa Neubauer, who has celebrated how “the German constitutional court has decided that climate justice is a fundamental right.”
The ruling is based on how for Germany to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement with regards to keeping the increase in global average temperatures below 2°C—and ideally 1.5°C—the emission reductions that would still be needed after 2030 would have to be met with great urgency.
As the Court has expressed, “These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030.”
In reaction to this ruling by the Court, Berlin looks as if it is ready to adopt some changes with its announcement of new targets. While the original version of the Federal Climate Change Act stipulated binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, specifically, a reduction of a minimum of 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, this has been raised to 65%.
Another change implemented in response to this ruling has been Germany’s climate neutrality goals being moved forward from 2050 to 2045, in addition to even more specific goals being put into place, such as the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 88% by 2040.
One matter that has not been touched upon appears to relate to sectoral details. The Act also puts forward reduction pathways, in terms of sectoral annual emission amounts, that apply during this period. It specifically set yearly “carbon budgets” for the agriculture, building, energy, industry, and transport sectors.
The Court had given the government until December 31, 2022, to provide in much more detail how the emissions reduction targets would be adjusted in the period following 2030, but it looks set to be passed by the Merkel cabinet much sooner. This timing is quite significant given how the original Act was crafted through intricate compromises by the ruling coalition—composed of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Furthermore, this need for changes comes just a couple of months before the federal elections, due to take place in September.
Indeed, these elections look like they will be critical ones given the way in which the German Greens are making serious strides towards taking the chancellery, with some polls putting them ahead of the CDU/CSU bloc.
This ruling by the Constitutional Court also drew attention to splits within the ruling coalition as well. One example of this was an argument that two Ministers had on Twitter, where the Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (who hails from the CDU) expressed that the decision was a “great, historic ruling, of crucial importance for the rights of young people and the younger generation as a whole.”
However, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (from the SPD) snapped at his coalition partner, saying, “As far as I can remember, it was you and the CDU/CSU who prevented us from doing what the constitutional court has now advised us to do.”
The overall case and the Constitutional Court’s ruling have been considered by some as showing how successful the Greens’ strategy of slowly consolidating their strength over the years has been, with the case having been brought by a coalition of environmental groups that the Greens endorsed.
In many other countries, such a ruling by a constitutional court would be criticized as a direct attempt to legislate by the highest judicial body in the country. However, in Germany, it is enthusiastically received by even the members of the government who were involved in the Climate Change Act’s creation.
The above-mentioned argument between Altmaier and Scholz showcases just how mainstream Green ideas have become: the argument is one involving Ministers of the governing coalition who themselves were involved in constructing the Climate Change Act actually welcoming the ruling of the Constitutional Court declaring the Act partly unconstitutional and even exchanging blame amongst themselves for not doing enough.
It should be noted that the German case is not the first of its kind but is instead one in a series of such rulings that have found governments to not be doing enough in fighting climate change. Indeed, one can also see examples from the Netherlands, where the Supreme Court imposed higher emission reduction targets, as well as from France, where a local Paris administrative court ruled that the French government had failed to take sufficient action in lowering greenhouse gas emissions and combatting climate change with regards to the promises it made in the Paris Agreement.
If the German ruling, and the resulting decisions are taken by the ruling coalition, is any indication of what is to come, such rulings by courts on climate change may perhaps become more common in the future.