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‘Historic’ German ruling says climate goals not tough enough

Germany’s supreme constitutional court has ruled that the government’s climate protection measures are insufficient to protect future generations, following a complaint brought by environmentalist groups.

In a ground-breaking ruling, the judges of the Karlsruhe court, Germany’s highest, said the government now has until the end of next year to improve its climate protection act, passed in 2019, and to ensure it meets 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals more immediately.

Fridays For Future activist Luisa Neubauer, who was one of the complainants, welcomed the ruling, saying: “This is huge. Climate protection is not nice to have, climate protection is our basic right and that’s official now. This is a huge win for the climate movement, it changes a lot.”

The court said it was unconstitutional for emission reduction targets to have been postponed for so many years and stated that the law was not detailed enough about how reductions would actually happen.

The case was brought by young environmental activists, backed by Fridays For Future along with Greenpeace, Germany’s Friends of the Earth (BUND) and other NGOs.

The judges ruled that young people’s “fundamental rights to a human future” were threatened and that the law in its current state jeopardised their freedom because the goals set were too focused on dates too far in the future. It said that it was only possible to reduce the rise in average global temperatures to between 1.5C and 2C – as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement – with “more urgent and shorter term measures”.

“The challenged rules violate the freedoms of the complainants some of whom are still very young,” the judges said in a statement.

They added: “Virtually every freedom is potentially affected by these future emission reduction obligations because almost every area of human life is associated with the emission of greenhouse gases and is therefore threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030.”

The government responded quickly to the ruling, promising a swift implementation of changes to the law. Finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said he would begin work immediately with the environment ministry to make the amendments, which would then be put to the government for approval.

Oliver Krischer for the Green party, told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, the ruling was “both a slap and a wakeup call for the government to finally start on an ambitious climate protection policy”.

Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research, called the ruling “trailblazing and historic”. In future decisions on all levels would have to be critically reviewed to see if they corresponded with long-term climate goals, she said.

Peter Altmaier, the minister for energy and the economy, called the ruling “big and significant”. Despite criticism he faced for his role as one of the main authors of the law, he called it a welcome decision for the economy as it would help it “plan for the future”.

Altmaier said he was relieved that the court had supported the “most important” obligation in his 2020 climate initiative, which requires that reduction targets up to the year 2050 are “broken down into concrete reduction targets for each individual year between 2022 and 2050”.

Neubauer said the climate lobby’s success at Karlsruhe was only the beginning, stressing that the five months leading up to the federal elections in September, in which the pro-environmental Greens have a good chance of entering government, would be crucial.

“We will continue to fight for a 1.5 degree policy which protects our future freedoms, instead of endangering them,” she said, adding “gone are the days when we were called ignorant for demanding climate action”.

Under the 2019 law Germany is obliged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2040, compared with 1990 levels.

Annual upper limits for greenhouse gas emissions across the sectors energy, transport, agriculture and construction are also set in the law. If targets are missed there are penalties and the obligation to make more stringent improvements.

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