Germany, Europe’s largest economy, was once a pioneer in climate protection. Today, Berlin presses hard on the brakes. But help is on the way.
By Frank Odenthal
The elections to the German Bundestag are over, and it remains unclear what the new government of Europe’s economic powerhouse will look like.
The fight against the climate crisis is likely to be the new government’s most difficult and challenging task, since Germany might have to declare that the promises made under the Paris Agreement have failed.
Help, however, comes from various civil society groups, including a non-governmental organization called GermanZero.
The Beam, a content partner of FairPlanet, spoke to Julian Zuber, GermanZero’s CEO.
The Beam: Julian Zuber, tell us what GermanZero is all about.
Julian Zuber: GermanZero is a non-profit and non-partisan association that is 100% financed by donations. We now have over 16,000 small donors. From time to time we also get project financing through foundations.
We currently have 36 full-time employees and over 1,000 volunteers. We founded GermanZero around one and a half years ago to develop a 1.5 degree legislative package that shows how Germany can achieve the 1.5 degree target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, which Germany signed.
It was a very complex process and also a new way of developing draft laws, namely by starting from the end. It was done intersectionally and with a very well-thought-out process that is both expert and participation-driven. It took one and a half years and over a hundred organizations, and over 260 experts and around 1,000 citizens took part.
This 1.5 degree legislative package is currently being expanded to include the area of sustainable finance, because a very important question is: how do you finance all of this? And we are still working on standardizing the most important areas to be able to translate them into legal texts, as well as on updating the accounting.
The aim is to present a kind of modular system and offer it to politicians. Politicians can then take things out, but they should put others in, so that we can comply with this budget limit.
“As we at GermanZero don’t need to be re-elected, we can speak more plainly and uncover hypocrisy on the spot. We thereby support politics in forming opinions.”
Tell us in more detail about how exactly you approach and interact with politicians.
Politics is above all interest-driven; not only, but primarily, and that’s why we have developed two other formats: on the one hand, the so-called political dialogues, in which trained [volunteers] to talk to politicians and try to demand a kind of climate promise from them. That can be quite confrontational by clearly asking politicians: are you for or against a 1.5 degree legislative package? We are represented in half of all constituencies with this particular format, and we have had over 200 discussions and received around 100 climate promises.
In addition, we are holding further discussions with politicians in the background in a kind of intersectoral round table, in which we show how we work and why that means assistance as well as relief for politics.
On the other hand, we offer the climate referendums. These are citizens’ petitions for climate neutrality, which we‘re giving a platform. We now have over 60, which means that over 18 million people in Germany now live in a municipality with a climate referendum.
The idea behind it is: it only works on all levels. It’s about political implementation, so plain-talking from civil society is needed. This not only increases the pressure on politicians, it also supports them. As we at GermanZero don’t need to be re-elected, we can speak more plainly and uncover hypocrisy on the spot. We thereby support politics in forming opinions.
After Germany, Europe on the horizon?
You describe your work at the municipal level. Are there also efforts to expand your engagement in the other direction, for example at the European level?
Our strategy was initially: we wanted to show that a country like Germany, which has recently turned from a pioneer to a laggard in terms of climate protection, can still achieve the 1.5 degree target. Because if Germany were no longer on the brakes, but became a pioneer again, that would also help Europe achieve its goals. That is why we will launch EuropeZero.
However, this is something that we will only tackle after the general election in Germany. We are already in talks with countries where, strategically, it would be just as important right now to take a similar approach to national legislation. This is mainly France because there will be elections there next year. And in 2023 there will be elections in Italy and Spain. So strategically these would be the next three countries where such an initiative could be useful.
However, we do not want to get bogged down and therefore concentrate first on the federal elections in Germany, the coalition talks and the first 100 days of the newly formed German government.
GermanZero recently presented a catalog of measures in September. At one point you recommend splitting the market for emission rights in the EU. Can you explain that?
Of course, we want emissions trading in Germany to be transferred to the European market. But first of all, however, we propose building CO2 pricing, i.e. emissions trading, at national levels. This should then be integrated throughout Europe. Experts tell us that it is important to do this at the national level first, so that things get going. But in the long term it should be integrated at the EU level and then also become a little less complex.
You also propose to set up separate emissions trading systems for aviation and shipping respectively.
Both aviation and shipping are of course of great strategic importance, which is why they must be treated with particular sensitivity. That is why we are proposing separate CO2 pricing systems and then, additionally, increasing quotas for synthetic fuels. Due to the technological framework conditions for these two modes of transport, they should have their own regulation.
You propose a tax on imported products, which they call a “border tax adjustment” regime. What does it mean?
It is a proposal at EU level. Border tax adjustment is currently hotly debated in Brussels anyway. In essence, it is about the question of whether production will be driven abroad if we make production more expensive in the EU by CO2 pricing.
So if you want more ambitious CO2 pricing, there should also be post-taxation, which means that the standards that do not apply abroad do not lead to production migrating and Germany or Europe as a production location to be marginalised. That is why a border tax adjustment is needed, which in our opinion does not mean any violation of WTO trade laws.
Revamping Germany’s Renewable Energy Systems: An Immediate Necessity
Another suggestion is to abolish Germany’s renewable energy law or to replace it with another system. Can you explain?
Originally, the idea of Germany‘s renewable energy law was to enable renewable energies to enter the country‘s electricity market. Now the question is: how can the following three points be implemented: 1. conversion to 100% renewable energy; 2. price stability; and 3. security of supply.
GermanZero is now proposing a completely new renewable energy law, which is relatively slim and which essentially requires three things: 1. a central energy agency to handle the expansion that can centrally control the planning for the required areas. What is needed here is a better overview that also works digitally, i.e. in real time; 2. a massive expansion of solar and wind energy; and 3. a massive simplification for regional energy communities. Municipalities must be able to set up decentralized energy supplies without being over-regulated.
Is returning to nuclear power an option?
In principle, nuclear power may also be an option. But if you look at the costs alone, it’s just a lot more expensive than solar and wind. The search for a radioactive waste repository, then the storage itself, these are good arguments against nuclear power.
In addition, nuclear power cannot be easily combined with renewable energies, because nuclear power has such a high base load, and you can’t just shut it down so quickly to leave space for renewables. That is why we say nuclear energy is not an option. But basically, of course, we left all options open.
“The Question Arises: Who Sets The Standards?”
Regarding transport policy, your catalog of measures contains the interesting observation that when it comes to sustainability, manufacturing is sometimes a lot more advanced than politics. Can you explain this phenomenon?
Politics is slower in many areas, and that, in fact, is often desirable. You don’t want a democracy to make decisions as quickly as a company. Of course, this has disadvantages; one of them is that politicians sometimes don’t even notice that the apparent interests they represent no longer exist because the companies are much further ahead.
That is why it makes so much sense to actively protect the climate as early as possible. Because the future economy will be climate neutral, that is completely out of the question. The only question is: when?
So the question arises: who sets the standards? Should Chinese companies do this, or American or European companies? There is a massive entrepreneurial advantage here to starting as early as possible, because leaders are the ones to set industry standards. And that, ultimately, is a cost issue and a strategic issue that companies tend to notice immediately.
You also mention the “exceptional case of agriculture.” What do you mean by that?
Agriculture has a special position in all of Europe. The biggest driver that shapes how agriculture works is the EU’s common agricultural policy. Farmers who produce sustainably are not rewarded there, but those who are big. And that’s a problem.
Many farmers want to be sustainable, but it doesn’t pay off for them. So there’s an incentive problem. We see the greatest leverage here in EU regulation. But there is also a lot that can be done here on a national level. Nevertheless, reforming the common agricultural policy would be a very good option.
You also write about “compensation abroad.” What does that mean? Can companies in Germany that fail to meet their climate targets buy their way out abroad?
That is exactly the danger. And we must make one thing clear to ourselves: we will have to rely on offsetting our emissions. As things stand today, we will miss the emissions targets that we have set for ourselves. So, if we want to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement, we need to offset our emissions abroad. That is why our proposals are much more ambitious than what all the other parties are currently calling for. But it will probably be necessary to compensate from 2025 because our budget will then be used up – even with our scenarios.
That is why we need rules for how such compensations should work. We have now also launched our theses for international exchange. The aim is to enable compensation partnerships, such as the one between Mongolia and Japan. We need standards for state and for private compensation in order to avoid this greenwashing, where some pointless project is financed just to be able to continue to discharge. For example, it should no longer be possible for two companies to claim the same reforestation project, i.e. it should not be charged twice.
How were the first reactions to the publication of your catalog of measures?
So, before the release, the reactions were mainly: are you crazy? That is far too complex!
We are now getting a lot of positive feedback, from civil society, but also from companies, and from climate researchers. Of course, there were also critical voices, which is very important because constructive headwinds have also helped us so far. There are still many unanswered questions, but more in relation to the technical implementation than the regulatory issues.
But, overall, the response is extremely positive.
Which of your demands do you think are the easiest to implement and which are the most difficult?
Our proposal on CO2 pricing should be easy to implement, but you have to do it right because it only works in an integrated manner. The conversion to renewable energies or the introduction of electric cars and social compensation measures and subsidies should be introduced in a concerted action. Massively raising petrol prices now and then introducing compensation payments six months later would not work. We, civil society, are here too to promote such measures. Ultimately, it‘s a matter of teamwork.
The exit from combustion technology in cars could be a bigger problem. In 20 years’ time this may no longer be an issue because everyone is enjoying their great electric cars, but today one or the other might feel annoyed or even attacked.
Julian Zuber (34) was born in Coburg (Bavaria) and grew up in Munich. He has worked as a strategy and policy advisor with a focus on the public sector. Before that he completed a PhD in Political Science and a Masters in Economic and Social History. While still a student, he founded the NGO “Polis 180,” a think tank on European and foreign policy, at that time purely on a voluntary basis and worked as a strategy consultant. In 2020, Zuber joined GermanZero as CEO.
Originally published on FairPlanet.
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