In 2019 the public debate on climate change shifted markedly, yet little was achieved in terms of concrete action. What developments can we hope to see in the year ahead?
An editorial view from Charlotte Unger, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
Heralded as a year for action, 2019 turned out to be a year of high-profile events and words: while the spirit of change evoked by youth climate movements around the world was reflected in the language of many politicians, it did not translate into meaningful action. This was evident at the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Madrid in December 2019, which ended without any significant progress. There was much frustration that the summit’s declaration did not include a clear call for countries to raise their ambitions on climate mitigation efforts, despite the fact that the pledges made to date under the Paris Agreement will only deliver one third of the reductions necessary to achieve the two-degree target.
Germany must finally pick up the pace in 2020
What does all this mean for Germany? First and foremost, Germany must not allow its pace to be dictated by climate laggards such as the USA, Brazil or China. Instead, it should take the lead as a climate pioneer. Germany has the economic strength, technological capacity and expertise to do so. And, crucially, there is broad support for a bolder approach within both civil society and the private sector. The nuclear phase-out initiated following the Fukushima Disaster demonstrates that Germany can rise to the challenge.
The revamped climate package is a step in the right direction, but the courage to introduce measures with far-reaching implications for society is still lacking. It is good that the government is finally getting to grips with emissions from the building and transport sectors by introducing carbon pricing. But whether such minimal measures as reducing VAT on rail tickets or increasing the price of fuel by an initial nine cents will significantly shift consumption patterns is highly debatable. But it is not just the effectiveness of these measures that must improve; Germany still has a long way to go in terms of social sustainability and the equitable distribution of costs relating to climate change mitigation. The chosen instruments will need to tweaked in the future in order to optimize their impacts.
Major challenges also lie ahead at the European level with efforts to revise (and increasing) the EU's contribution to climate protection under the Paris Agreement, chart a course to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and develop more ambitious climate mitigation policies across the European Union. Here too, Germany can play a leading role.
Climate protection: complexity management on a mammoth scale
The disappointing conclusion of the climate conference and the debate that raged over climate policy reforms in Germany highlight the enormity of the challenges we face. On the one hand, we know that tackling climate change will require stricter regulations, more ambitious goals at state level, and clear road-maps for the implementation of climate action. At the same time, however, protecting the climate has become an exponentially complex undertaking that touches on a multitude of issues, ranging from air quality to migration to biodiversity conservation. We have also come to understand that effective climate action requires the involvement of an increasingly broad spectrum of people and groups, with very different interests and positions – from populists to climate sceptics to youth activists. Mastering this balancing act requires some fresh thinking and a willingness to adopt holistic approaches focused on participation and sharing – be it by involving stakeholders from civil society in dialogues at UN climate negotiations or in the development of measures in the context of national climate policymaking or by coupling structural change with measures that offer communities a sustainable future.
This is a massive challenge. It is also an opportunity to deliver outcomes that are innovative, good, and equitable. In her New Year’s speech, Angela Merkel called on us to be more courageous. I can only agree: Policymakers must show more courage in the fight against the climate crisis – as must we.
About the author
At the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Charlotte Unger investigates international political processes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and their role in climate protection. She followed the negotiations at the COP in Madrid.
16. january 2020
Picture credits: IASS, Lotte Ostermann