Germany showed the world this week that it is forging ahead with a strategy to rapidly phase out greenhouse gas emissions. Coinciding with climate negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco (COP22), the German cabinet approved a plan on November 14th to guide climate action through 2050, known as the Climate Protection Plan 2050. Germany is the first country to come forward with a “mid-century, long-term low GHG emissions development strategy,” which the Paris Agreement invited Parties to communicate by 2020.

These long-term strategies are critical for achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2 degrees C (2.7-3.6 degrees F) and preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change. Countries’ current national climate plans are only set to limit warming to 2.7-3.7 degrees C (4.9-6.7 degrees F). Ambitious plans that take a long-term view are essential for closing the gap.

They can also help guide the implementation of current shorter-term climate commitments so they do not lock in high-carbon pathways. As Germany put it, “With the decision to build a new coal-fired power station, the expectation would be to make money in the next 30 years. Against the backdrop of German and international climate protection targets, this is certainly no longer realistic.… The Federal Government wants to provide incentives for investment in climate-friendly technologies, buildings and infrastructure."

Germany has advanced a long-term vision on climate action for some time. For example, its 2010 Energiekonzept (energy strategy) set out to reduce energy-related emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050 and increase renewable energy supply 80 percent by 2050. The famous German energy transition, or “Energiewende,” was embraced by Chancellor Merkel in the aftermath of Fukushima, leading to a shift of nuclear and fossil fuel power to renewable energy.

The Climate Protection Plan 2050, adopted on Monday, builds on these plans and sets a new bar for other countries preparing their own long-term emissions-reduction strategies. Key elements of the plan include:

  • Steep GHG reduction target with reference to GHG neutrality. In 2010, Germany committed to reduce emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. The new plan reiterates that goal, and states that Germany will target “extensive greenhouse gas neutrality” by 2050. The relationship between the neutrality goal and the GHG reduction goal (which excludes the land sector) remains to be seen. Greenhouse gas neutrality suggests that any GHG emissions would be balanced by equal removals (for example, via enhanced sequestration in the land sector or from negative emissions generated through technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a technology which remains unproven at scale). Noting Germany’s relatively high per-capita emissions and its status as a strong, industrialized economy, the plan states that Germany must reach the Paris Agreement goal of GHG neutrality “early.”
  • Guiding principles for long-term sectoral transformation. The plan lays out a broad vision for the transformation that each economic sector will need to undergo over the coming decades. For instance, it touches on the need to achieve a climate-neutral building stock, due to the long lifespan of buildings and their emissions-generating activities, highlighting the need for further development of building energy standards and funding for renewable heating systems. With regard to transport, the plan notes the need for adequate infrastructure and electric mobility.
  • Sector-specific targets for 2030. While Germany already had a target to reduce emissions by at least 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, notably the Plan lays out specific GHG reduction targets for each economic sector: energy (61-62 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), buildings (66-67 percent), transport (40-42 percent), industry (49-51 percent), agriculture (31-34 percent) and “other” (87 percent). While these measures do not enhance the overall ambition of Germany’s 2030 target, they do provide greater certainty for each sector as to their expected contribution. Notably, the plan fails to establish a specific date by which coal will be phased out – a point of contention throughout the negotiation of the plan over the past several months. Instead, Germany notes that the targets “can only be achieved if coal is gradually reduced,” and provides for a commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Regional Development to address the issue. Likewise, the plan has been criticized for lacking specific measures to achieve the targets, but detailed action programs are to be drawn up for each sector. GHG reductions will be quantified, and economic, social and environmental impacts evaluated. An annual climate action report will track implementation, facilitating swift policy adjustments as needed.

The plan notes that while Germany’s targets are largely achievable with existing technology, research and development will nonetheless play an important role, including for certain industrial applications.

Looking ahead, Germany will update the plan at regular intervals, considering technical progress and economic development. The plan leaves open the possibility that the updates could shift mitigation obligations between sectors, stating that “in this way, we allow flexibility without jeopardizing compliance with the climate targets.” Ideally, the plan would be updated to include measures for reaching the higher end of the target’s ambition, a 95 percent emissions reduction by 2050. This is important because in order to have a likely chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), global CO2 emissions must reach net zero by 2045-2050. To meet the Paris Agreement goals at least-cost, the EU and the OECD should phase out coal by 2030.

In the wake of the U.S. election, the world desperately needs every government to stand committed to climate action. While the German 2050 plan has room for improvement, it sends necessary signals to cities, businesses and citizens that a zero-carbon society is inevitable. We hope that others follow in Germany’s footsteps and provide strong visions for a long-term transformation.