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Climate bombshell: German court tells government it must do more to save future generations from ‘radical abstinence’

April 29, 2021, 4:03 PM UTC

If your target is climate neutrality by 2050, it isn’t enough to set emissions targets up to 2030 alone, with those targets allowing you to use most of your remaining carbon budget—thus condemning the next generation to drastic lifestyle changes that jeopardize their freedoms.

That’s the core of a blistering ruling handed down Thursday by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, upholding key complaints from young environmentalists.

The decision makes clear that climate protection is a human right in Germany, and it means the German government will, by the end of next year, have to amend a climate protection law it adopted just two years ago. But which government will that be?

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its allies have been in power for nearly 16 years now, but the popular Merkel is retiring after this year’s election. Recent polls suggest Germany’s Greens stand the best chance of providing her replacement—in the form of party co-leader Annalena Baerbock—and Thursday’s ruling by the country’s highest court could give them even more fuel to do so.

‘Radical abstinence’

The 2019 Federal Climate Change Act was intended to cement Germany’s obligations under the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or ideally 1.5 degrees, above preindustrial levels.

It was passed by the center-right CDU, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), and their current coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), against opposition from many other parties—including the Greens, who said the law didn’t go far enough, and the liberal Free Democrats, who accused the government of “climate hysteria.”

The act says Germany needs emissions cuts of at least 55% by 2030. What happens after that point is something of a blank slate, with the law saying only that the government needs to draw up a new, post-2030 plan in 2025.

At the start of last year, young activists from the Greta Thunberg–founded Fridays for Future movement joined forces to sue the government, as did a group of people from Nepal and Bangladesh, which are both on the front lines of climate change. “This is no longer just about future generations,” said Luisa Neubauer, one of the plaintiffs, at the time. “To us, this is about our generation, our lives, and the fact that the nonaction of the government terrorizes our freedom.”

On Thursday, the Constitutional Court agreed, to an extent.

“The statutory provisions on adjusting the reduction pathway for greenhouse gas emissions from 2031 onwards are not sufficient to ensure that the necessary transition to climate neutrality is achieved in time,” the court said. “The legislator must enact provisions by 31 December 2022 that specify in greater detail how the reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions are to be adjusted for periods after 2030.”

The Constitutional Court didn’t uphold the parts of the complaint claiming the climate law infringed on people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to life and physical integrity—the government has a lot of leeway in how it can fulfill that responsibility—but it confirmed that the law broke Article 20a of the German constitution, which states: “Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the state shall protect the natural bases of life.”

The 2019 law’s targets will allow Germany to use up most of its remaining “CO2 budget”—the emissions it can make en route to carbon neutrality by mid-century—by 2030, the court noted, saying this would “substantially narrow the remaining options for reducing emissions after 2030, thereby jeopardizing practically every type of freedom protected by fundamental rights.”

“It is true that any exercise of freedom involving CO2 emissions would have to be essentially prohibited at some point anyway in order to halt climate change, because global warming can only be prevented if anthropogenic concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere stop rising,” the court said. “However, if much of the CO2 budget were already depleted by 2030, there would be a heightened risk of serious losses of freedom because there would then be a shorter time frame for the technological and social developments required to enable today’s still heavily CO2-oriented lifestyle to make the transition to climate-neutral behavior in a way that respects freedom.”

“The objective duty of protection arising from [Article 20a of the Basic Law] encompasses the necessity to treat the natural foundations of life with such care and to leave them in such condition that future generations who wish to continue preserving these foundations are not forced to engage in radical abstinence,” the court added.

‘Globally significant’

“Today, the German constitutional court has decided that climate justice is a fundamental right,” tweeted Neubauer in response to the ruling. “Today’s inaction mustn’t harm our freedom and rights in the future.”

Several of the other plaintiffs are siblings; their family, the Backsens, live on a North Sea island called Pellworm that is particularly threatened by rising sea levels. “Effective climate protection must start and be implemented now, not just 10 years from now,” said one, Sophie Backsen, in a Greenpeace statement after the ruling. “This is the only way to secure my future on my home island. The decision gives me momentum to keep fighting.”

Climate lawyer Roda Verheyen, who represented the nine young plaintiffs, said in the statement that the ruling “set a globally significant new standard for climate protection as a human right.”

The German ruling is arguably not the first to do that, though. At the end of 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Dutch government had to move faster to reduce emissions, and that decision was also based on the protection of human rights.

Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for the chancellery, also hailed the German court’s “historical decision” and demanded immediate revision of the Climate Change Act. “The next few years are crucial for consistent action,” she tweeted.

The German environment minister, Svenja Schulze of the SPD, tweeted that she welcomed the court ruling “as a strengthening for climate protection” and said the government would announce “key points” for the law’s revision this summer.

The CDU and the CSU, which fight federal elections in tandem under the “Union” banner, insisted that the federal government’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050 was never in doubt. Anja Weisgerber, the lawmaker who acts as the group’s frontwoman on climate issues, claimed that Merkel was responsible for the European Union’s collective climate ambitions, which also entail 55% emissions reductions by 2030.

“The ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court gives climate policy a tailwind and encourages us to take concrete steps for the period after 2030 as well,” Weisgerber said. “We will accept this challenge, because it is about nothing other than the interests of our children and grandchildren.”

Also on Thursday, a global study showed Germany could lose its last Alpine ice caps within the next decade. Previous estimates had the glaciers lasting until mid-century, but it seems climate change won’t wait so long.

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